For over a year, there has been one fact that has been repeated in literally thousands of news stories: former Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the clearing of Lafayette Park on June 1, 2020 to allow former President Donald Trump to hold his controversial photo op in front of St. John’s Church. From the outset, there was ample reason to question the claim echoed across media outlets. As I noted in my testimony to Congress on the protest that month, the operation was clearly a response to days of violent and destructive protests. Now the Inspector General has completed its investigation and the report debunks the conspiracy theory that the Lafayette Square area was cleared to make way for the Trump photo op.
While many today still claim that the protests were “entirely peaceful” and there was no “attack on the White House,” that claim is demonstrably false. It is only plausible if one looks at the level of violence at the start of the clearing operation as opposed to the prior 48 hours. There was in fact an exceptionally high number of officers were injured during the protests. In addition to a reported 150 officers were injured (including at least 49 Park Police officers around the White House), protesters caused extensive property damage including the torching of a historic structure and the attempted arson of St. John’s. The threat was so great that Trump had to be moved into the bunker because the Secret Service feared a breach of security around the White House.
The expansion of the perimeter with the fencing was a logical and necessary move. It is the same decision reached (and indeed the same fencing) by Congress when it responded to January 6 riot this year. Absent such fencing, an extremely dangerous situation could have arisen where a major breach of the White House perimeter would have triggered the use of lethal force with the potential of a major loss of life.
Ample evidence emerged in the days after the protests to reinforce the account of Barr and others that the plan to clear the park area was proposed days before any plan for a photo op. There was never any evidence that Barr knew of the photo op plan before approving the operation. Nevertheless, media and legal experts continued to claim as a fact that this was all done for the photo op. University of Texas professor and CNN contributor Steve Vladeck continued to claim that Barr ordered federal officers “to forcibly clear protestors in Lafayette Park to achieve a photo op for Trump.” In a still uncorrected segment still up on the Internet, NPR declares “Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op.”
Democratic leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeated the conspiracy theory about the photo op and the Washington Post ran an article by Philip Bump titled “Attorney General Bill Barr’s Dishonest Defense of Clearing of Lafayette Square.” Not only did the Post refer to the “debunked claim” that no tear gas was used by the federal government, but goes on to state incredibly:
“It is the job of the media to tell the truth. The truth is that Barr’s arguments about the events of last Monday collapse under scrutiny and that his flat assertion that there was no link between clearing the square and Trump’s photo op should be treated with the same skepticism that his claims about the use of tear gas earns.”
It turns out that both assertions were true.
The Inspector General of the Department of Interior has conducted an investigation over the last year and the Biden Administration just released the findings. The IG states unequivocally that there is no evidence to support the allegation that Barr or others ordered the clearing for the photo op. The report further concludes that “the USPP had the authority and discretion to clear Lafayette Park and the surrounding areas on June 1.” It further “the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31.” It was not done “to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
That is not the only contraction of the almost universal media accounts. The federal government has long denied using “tear gas” in its operation as opposed to pepper balls in the clearing operation on June 6th. The difference has little real significance either legally or practically. However, critics latched on the denial to show that Barr and others were lying. The IG found that “the USPP incident commander did not authorize CS gas for this operation. Expecting that CS gas would not be used, most USPP officers did not wear gas masks.”
The IG found no evidence of approval or use of tear gas by the federal operation. However, it confirmed “and the MPD confirmed, that the MPD used CS gas on 17th Street on June 1. As discussed above, the MPD was not a part of nor under the control or direction of the USPP’s and the Secret Service’s unified command structure.”
In fact, last week, the District admitted that it used tear gas about a block away in its enforcement of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s curfew. The admission was itself breathtaking since the media lionized Bowser for her stance against the operation and specifically the use of tear gas. For a year, the District knew that it used the tear gas and said nothing to the public as Bowser basked in the media glow – and Barr was attacked as a liar.
Now, on the anniversary of the operation, the Bowser Administration is in court asking for the lawsuit by Black Lives Matter be dismissed. Her attorneys are arguing that the use of tear gas was entirely appropriate and that the clearing of the area was reasonable. This is the same mayor who received national acclaim for painting “Black Lives Matter” on the street next to the park and renaming it “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
The Biden Administration is also joining in the effort to dismiss the BLM case. It told the court “Presidential security is a paramount government interest that weighs heavily in the Fourth Amendment balance.” The DOJ’s counsel, John Martin, added that “federal officers do not violate First Amendment rights by moving protesters a few blocks, even if the protesters are predominantly peaceful.”
The media has largely ignored the admission of the District and the change of the position on the legitimacy of the law enforcement actions. Moreover, none of the media outlets have corrected their prior stories reporting that Barr ordered the clearing to allow for the photo op, let alone apologize to Barr.
In today’s echo journalism, it is doubtful that any of this will matter. The myth of the photo op fueled the anger and fed the ratings. It is doubtful that these same media and legal experts will now acknowledge that they fostered a conspiracy theory without any concrete support.
The IG Report may have more to say about our media culture than the clearing operation itself. As with the effective media blackout on the Hunter Biden story and the Chinese lab leak theory before the election, the media actively shaped the news to fit a narrative. It worked. Biden was elected and the public still believes these false accounts. For many Democrats, Bill Barr will remain the man who violently crushed protesters for a photo op. As the old media saying goes, it was (and remains) “a fact too good to check.”