Attorney General William Barr said Thursday that it was “entirely appropriate” to forcibly remove protesters from the area surrounding the White House ahead of President Trump’s seemingly impromptu photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church.
“I think the president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street to the church of presidents,” Barr said at a press conference when asked about regrets expressed Wednesday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper over the political implication of his appearance with the president at the church. National Guard troops and chemical agents cleared the protesters from the area between the White House and the church. “I don’t necessarily view that as a political act,” Barr said. “I think it was entirely appropriate for him to do.”
Barr said the president had asked him on Monday to “coordinate the various law enforcement agencies” to respond to violent protests, including a small fire in the basement of St. John’s Church over the weekend. He said he had already decided to expand the perimeter of the cleared zone by an additional block before he learned that the president planned to walk to “the church of presidents” to be photographed holding a Bible.
“I did not know he was going to do that until later in the day, after our plans were well underway to move the perimeter, so there is no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president’s going out to the church,” Barr said.
Reporters covering Monday’s protests said they were peaceful by comparison to previous nights. Trump and his family were rushed into a bunker beneath the White House on Friday night after protesters breached a barricade set up near the Treasury Department, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing arrest records and “people familiar with the incident.”
In a Wednesday radio interview with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, Trump offered a different retelling of what transpired Friday.
“I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny, little, short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection,” the president said.
On Wednesday, the White House spent much of the day disputing that law enforcement officers and National Guard troops had fired tear gas at protesters on Monday to clear a path for the president to walk to the church.
“Well, it wasn’t tear gas, I would note,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a press briefing. “And what they used was a way to target those that were being violent.”
The U.S. Park Police claimed Tuesday that its officers began clearing the park after demonstrators threw objects at law enforcement officers, and denied that tear gas had been fired at the protesters.
“As many of the protesters became more combative, continued to throw projectiles and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls,” Gregory Monahan, U.S. Park Police acting chief, said in a statement. “No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to clear the area of Lafayette Park.”
Pepper balls are projectiles similar to toy paint balls, but filled with a capsicum-based irritant. It is similar to the more familiar pepper spray used by law enforcement agencies, and the effect is similar to tear gas.
Numerous journalists covering the rally, as well as video of the event, did not corroborate Monahan’s account of the protest, which was broadcast live on cable news networks.
Bishop Mariann Budde lashed out at the president, saying “everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” including the photo op in front of St. John’s.
“I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop.”
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