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Monday, July 27, 2020

Officials familiar with Lafayette Square confrontation challenge Trump administration claim of what drove aggressive expulsion of protesters

Officials familiar with Lafayette Square confrontation challenge Trump administration claim of what drove aggressive expulsion of protesters

“During the nearly two weeks since authorities charged at peaceful protesters to push them from D.C. streets — about 30 minutes before President Trump walked through the area for a photo op — his aides, the attorney general and federal law enforcement officials have sought to shield the president from political fallout with a simple defense: One scene, they say, had nothing to do with the other.

The notion that the street-clearing offensive around Lafayette Square was already planned, and separate from Trump’s decision to visit a nearby church, has emerged as the administration’s central explanation for scenes of federal officers shoving protesters with shields and firing pepper balls, chemical grenades and smoke bombs at retreating crowds on June 1.

“This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block,” Attorney General William P. Barr told CBS News last week.

However, the accounts of more than a half-dozen officials from federal law enforcement, D.C. public safety agencies and the National Guard who were familiar with planning for protests outside the White House that day challenge that explanation. The officials told The Washington Post they had no warning that U.S. Park Police, the agency that commanded the operation, planned to move the perimeter — and protesters — before a 7 p.m. citywide curfew, or that force would be used.

Among them is D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who said that while there had been discussions about possibly pushing the perimeter farther outward from the White House, there was not a confirmed time to do so. He noted that authorities did not actually secure the area with fencing until hours after protesters were cleared.

“When they extended the perimeter, it was overnight,” he said.

Newsham said that his agency, which did not take part in the Lafayette Square operation, learned via police communications that force was going to be used to clear the protesters just moments after he and other officials were told that Trump would be walking to the church.

“We heard that there was going to be an unscheduled presidential movement,” Newsham said. “Just a few minutes later, our teams on the ground learned [chemical] munitions were going to be used. The munitions were deployed minutes later.”

Another D.C. public safety official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, said it was as if the Park Police plan to move the perimeter had been “hurried up” around the time the president decided to walk to the church. The clearing of the area began just after 6:30 p.m., and Trump left the White House for the church about 7:02 p.m.

Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said he was stunned to watch the scenes of protesters fleeing officers on television that evening.

“I never heard any plan, ever, that police or National Guard were going to push people out of Lafayette Square,” said Lengyel, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

U.S. Park Police acting chief Gregory T. Monahan said in a statement to The Post that the timing and tactics were in response to what he said was violence by demonstrators.

Monahan said the operation to secure the street and install the fence “had been discussed as early as two days prior” and was “completely irrespective” of the president’s later movement, which he said his agency did not know about.

Moving the perimeter, Monahan said, “was contingent upon having enough resources on scene. Given that the majority of law enforcement personnel did not report until later in the day, a late afternoon or early evening operation was inevitable.”

The Park Police did not respond to questions about what time the fencing was eventually installed.

A spokeswoman for the Secret Service declined to comment, referring questions to Monahan.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said protesters were not moved to accommodate the president’s walk to the church. “The decision to move the perimeter was made well before there was any plan for the President to leave the White House,” she said in a statement.

A White House spokesman did not respond to a list of questions.

Trump has repeatedly played down the use of force that federal authorities deployed to clear the streets. “The protesters, agitators, anarchists (ANTIFA), and others, were handled VERY easily by the Guard, D.C. Police, & S.S. GREAT JOB!” he tweeted Thursday.

A senior administration official said Trump wanted protesters pushed farther away from the White House beginning that Monday morning. Throughout the day, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Barr had conversations about moving the perimeter, long before the president decided to walk across Lafayette Square, according to the official, who, like several others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.

Photos and videos of protesters being hit with riot-control grenades as they were forced from streets around Lafayette Square, a historic site for protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, has elicited sharp criticism from former military leaders and apologies from the Pentagon’s top general for his presence at the scene, and spurred multiple calls for investigations.

The new accounts of officials who spoke to The Post further deepen questions about who ordered the forceful dispersal of protesters, why the order was executed at that particular moment — when the crowd was at its thickest all day and protesters would soon be ordered home — and how police justified the aggressive tactics against largely peaceful demonstrators.

At least two other explanations the administration has offered for the police offensive have been undercut by witnesses and reporters at the scene.

The White House initially said the crowd was dispersed to help enforce the city’s 7 p.m. curfew. But the curfew had not yet taken effect, and D.C. officials said they did not request any such help and were not on site participating. Park Police have repeatedly given a different explanation, saying officers responded with force after violent protesters began throwing bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids.

video reconstruction published by The Post that analyzed footage from dozens of camera angles found no evidence before the offensive of such projectiles being thrown, although a few protesters threw partially full water bottles as officers massed for the offensive. Instructions given over police radios also showed that officers were executing planned “surges” to remove protesters, rather than responding to individual provocations.

Law enforcement statutes, codes of conduct and the terms of a federal class-action legal settlement indicate that the operation may have violated safeguards for protesters that the Park Police and the Justice Department agreed to in 2015,experts said. Those protections included providing demonstrators with repeated, clear warnings of officers’ intentions, and then adequate time and avenues for them to disperse peacefully.

If the street-clearing operation was carried out to accommodate Trump’s photo op, several additional rules of engagement for the U.S. Secret Service may have also been violated, according to several law enforcement officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss rules surrounding presidential security.

“I think we need a thorough investigation about what occurred there. Why was the crowd cleared? Who did it? Was it legal? We need to answer these questions,” Newsham said. “I think we need to get all the details to see if this was lawful.”

The president fumes

As dawn broke over Lafayette Square on June 1, the scars of a week of protests that had rippled out from Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody were evident all around. Graffiti marred federal statues. Broken windows and vandalized storefronts were covered in plywood. And at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church at the corner of H and 16th streets, north of the White House, soot covered an entrance to a nursery, where a fire had been set during protests the night before.

Inside the West Wing, the president had stayed up late into the night Sunday, talking on the phone to friends about how he needed to restore order, and, in particular, to get D.C. “under control,” according to the senior administration official.

Trump grew furious as he watched morning news reports that he had been hunkered down in a White House bunker two nights earlier during a chaotic night in which protesters breached a fence near the White House.

Trump fumed that he should invoke the Insurrection Act, allowing him to send active-duty troops into U.S. cities for the first time since the Rodney King riots of 1992.

That morning, the president asked Barr to coordinate the federal government response “to the violence and arson and in that role supported a plan to move the perimeter north of H Street,” Kupec said.

Around 11 a.m., Barr and Meadows met to discuss pushing the perimeter boundary, one of several conversations they had throughout the day, the senior administration official said.

By that afternoon, Trump had also begun talking with a small circle of advisers, including Meadows, his daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House social media director Dan Scavino and press aide Hogan Gidley about staging an event to show he was in command. One idea emerged: a visit by Trump to the damaged St. John’s Church.

As the discussions continued, protesters and police begin trickling back downtown and filling in between the White House and the church for a fifth straight day.

Members of the D.C. National Guard — which had been activated to help with the city’s covid-19 response and asked a day earlier by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to pivot to traffic control around protests — received a new, urgent request: to serve in support of the U.S. Park Police, which has jurisdiction over Lafayette Square, according to D.C. and Guard officials. Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, who for the D.C. Guard functions as a state governor would, approved the request, and guardsmen began arriving at the park at noon, a Guard spokesman said.

At 2 p.m., top law enforcement and military officials gathered at an FBI command center about a mile from the White House to plan for the night ahead.

There, Barr was working to assemble an auxiliary force of U.S. marshals, federal agents, homeland security personnel and even federal prison guards to multiply the number of law enforcement personnel on District streets by nightfall.

Over the weekend, the Park Police had prepared a plan to expand the perimeter around the White House. Monahan said the move was necessary because both the public and law enforcement were at risk from ongoing violence. The Secret Service told the Park Police that “anti-scale fencing” would be procured and potentially delivered on Monday for installation along H Street, he said.

Barr said he approved the perimeter expansion Monday morning.

“It was communicated to all the police agencies, including the Metropolitan Police at 2 p.m. that day,” the attorney general told CBS. “The effort was to move the perimeter one block, and it had to be done when we had enough people in place to achieve that.”

During the 2 p.m. planning meeting at the FBI command center, Newsham and Barr looked over maps discussing various contingency plans not just for Lafayette Square, but for other parts of the city as well, according to one person in attendance.

Kupec said that the plan to move the perimeter was discussed at the meeting, adding: “No one voiced disagreement with that plan.”

Newsham declined to comment on what was discussed but reiterated that there was no firm decision about when such an operation would take place.

“We knew that they were considering the perimeter expansion, but there was no indication if or when it would happen,” said Dustin Sternbeck, a spokesman for the D.C. police.

Lengyel, who was also in attendance and would spend the afternoon pressing state Guard units to send 5,000 troops to further bolster security in D.C., said he remembers a discussion about “a larger, expansive zone” that would be set up at some point. But he said there was no indication during the discussion that police would forcefully set such a perimeter. “There was no talk that ‘we’re going to go in and push it out,’ ” he said. “I did not hear that discussion.”

He said he was listening for issues that would affect the guardsmen on duty at Lafayette Square and recalled the meeting being mostly about whether D.C. police and U.S. Park Police would have adequate staffing for the night and how they would coordinate to quash protests and round up curfew violators.

Another person in attendance said the possibility of extending the perimeter was talked about in general terms.

“No one said in the room, ‘We are going to push the perimeter back X amount of feet,” a U.S. defense official said. “However, there was discussion about the possibility of having to do that if certain conditions existed.”

According to the defense official, the officials said they would push back the perimeter “if they were not able to stop the protesters from committing vandalism around Lafayette Square. It was all conditions-based.”

Back at Lafayette Square, 50 officers from the Arlington County Police Department soon returned at the request of Park Police for a second night of helping keep order around the federal park. At a stand-up meeting near the Treasury Building, beside the White House, their commander met with two U.S. Park Police captains, who said Arlington officers should prepare to help move the northern perimeter outward “at some point” later in the evening, according to County Manager Mark Schwartz.

Arlington officers were told the push would have to wait until more National Guard soldiers arrived to hold the line, as well as contractors to install the temporary new perimeter fence, Schwartz said.

However, a D.C. National Guard spokesman said that soldiers were at Lafayette Square all afternoon and that their force levels did not change significantly before the offensive.

'Hands up, don't shoot'

As the afternoon grew late, Meadows and other White House officials became frustrated that the perimeter had not yet been expanded. They were told that the Park Police still did not have enough people in place to do so, according to two administration officials.

A group of aides was putting the final touches on a speech the president would give in the Rose Garden that would begin: “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”

“Just minutes” before Trump’s 6:15 p.m. address, he made a decision: He wanted to visit the church immediately afterward, the senior administration official said.

“It had been talked about all afternoon, but that’s when the final decision was made,” the senior administration official said.

Anthony Ornato, White House deputy chief of operations, alerted the Secret Service that the president was going to make a brief appearance outside St. John’s Church, according to two people familiar with the plans.

“Of course it was going to have to be pushed back for him to go,” said a second administration official. “It’s not like the president of the United States is going to walk through a crowd like that. But we believed it was going to be pushed back either way.”

At 6:08 p.m., a Post reporter spotted Barr arriving in Lafayette Square, where he was seen on camera conferring with other officials, including Ornato.

Kupec said the men were having “a brief discussion of the need to stay out of a range of projectiles and why the movement had not already occurred and when it would occur.”

A peaceful chant of “hands up, don’t shoot,” broke down as people in the crowd began to point and murmur about officers massing in greater numbers along the northern edge of Lafayette Square.

There were dozens of Secret Service officers and the 50 Arlington County police clad in SWAT gear, according to a Post video reconstruction of the event. U.S. Park Police had over 80 officers with shields and 15 mounted on horseback. Behind them were D.C. National Guard and Air National Guard members with shields saying “military police.”

Coming across the middle of Lafayette Square were U.S. marshals in camouflage with an armored personnel carrier. Some officers holding canister launchers and pepper ball guns had patches indicating they were guards from a U.S. penitentiary in Hazelton, W. Va.

The push to clear the area began shortly after 6:30 p.m. — roughly 10 minutes before Trump began speaking in the Rose Garden.

One protester, Stephan Starkes, 27, a security worker in Upper Marlboro, Md., noticed a man in a yellow Park Police helmet striding up and down the line, seemingly giving instructions. As Starkes began to wonder whether he should move farther away, some of the officers began pulling down their face shields.

“Then all of a sudden it got crazy,” Starkes said. “You could hear people screaming, followed by loud cracks, you started to see smoke — people rubbing their eyes, people running.”

As the push continued north, east and west, clouds of smoke filled the air. Park Police officers fired smoke canisters and pepper balls, a projectile munition that shoots irritant powder. A Post reporter witnessed protesters along H Street coughing, their eyes streaming with tears, and some of them vomiting. While the Park Police has said it did not use tear gas, the chemical agents it deployed cause intense irritation to the eyes and skin.

Sarah Rosner, a 37-year-old Dupont resident and lead bartender at the Four Seasons in D.C., was retreating along H Street, almost near St. John’s Church, when her skin and eyes began burning from the gas, even though she was wearing goggles.

Holding her “Silence is Betrayal” sign, she shouted at an officer. “We are peacefully protesting!”

Rosner said the officer then shoved her to the ground with his shield. She fell backward and hit her head on the street before her friend and two others dragged her out of the way.

Questions about tactics

Former U.S. Capitol police chief Terrance Gainer said the street-clearing operation ran counter to “everything we train to do” to keep demonstrations peaceful and orderly. He said the perimeter should have been moved before dawn, as is routinely done to accommodate special events in the nation’s capital.

“There was no reason to use force and fight,” he said, adding: “If they wanted to clear that park, they could have done it in a very orderly way, giving people notice.”

Although the Secret Service has broad authority under federal law to clear people from an area where the president plans to travel, several elements of the tactics used in the operation under the Park Police’s command that evening violated Secret Service training and protocol, former agents said.

The Secret Service is trained to warn people in an area that they want to secure, with officers instructing them repeatedly that they need to move to another area, and directing them toward that safe location.

Shooting munitions and chemical gas is considered a last resort and could be deployed only after Secret Service and other federal officers made numerous audible warnings, and were met with forceful and violent resistance.

In the events of that Monday evening, former agents told The Post, the officers failed to make such audible warnings and failed to take gradual, incremental steps to properly move the crowd before escalating to a dramatic use of force.

The Secret Service declined to comment.

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, a nonprofit legal group that often represents clients in First Amendment cases, said that if the police offensive was, as it appeared, an effort to clear a path for Trump, “presidential security does not give a pretext for wholesale brutal assault on demonstrators and journalists,” she said.

“Just because they want to get him across the park does not mean they can attack people and use chemical weapons and assault them,” she said. “Protecting the president is not a license for excessive force.”

Verheyden-Hilliard signed the 2015 federal settlement with Park Police on behalf of protesters, which requires the agency to provide a “reasonable exit avenue” to those in the crowd and to position an officer at the rear who can certify that warnings to leave can be heard.

The June 1 footage appears to show that Park Police officers did not give adequate notice or direction to protesters that they must leave the public street, or how to peacefully do so, she said. Video indicates that the warnings were barely audible amid the crowd.

“It’s clear Park Police committed a mass violation of constitutional rights, as well as very specific procedures,” the agency agreed to in court, she said.

The Park Police did not respond to a request for comment on the 2015 settlement. In his statement, Monahan said the agency, “following standard operating procedures,” issued three warnings to demonstrators over a loudspeaker.

In the aftermath of the Lafayette Square confrontation, the president has touted his decision to walk to the church as a way to show he had reclaimed the streets. Several top aides were rattled by the images of fleeing protesters, however, and worried it had been a mistake.

By the next morning, portions of a new black barrier were visible when reporters returned to the area at 7 a.m., following the end of the overnight curfew.

Neither U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service nor the contractor that installed the fencing would comment on what time crews put it in place.

Two days later, over a mile of hardened, concrete barrier was added. According to the Virginia company that delivered it, the barrier was ordered June 2, the day after streets around the park were cleared.

It has all since been removed.

Hannah Natanson, Samantha Schmidt, Peter Hermann, Alice Crites and Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.“

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