In 2016, Karen Tumulty wrote a column in the Washington Post titled “Trump: Never Wrong, Never Sorry, Never Responsible” that criticized Donald Trump as someone who refused “to take ownership of the outrageous things he has said and done.” Tumulty’s column came to mind this week when the Washington Post faced a federal report that debunked literally dozens of Post articles on the clearing of the Lafayette Square area on June 1, 2020. The Interior Department’s Inspector General unambiguously refuted the claim that former Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the clearing to allow Trump to hold his controversial photo op in front of St. John’s Church. The Post (which proclaims that “Democracy Dies In Darkness”) shed little light on its own role in the fostering of this conspiracy theory.
The Washington Post was one of the most cited sources for the photo op myth. Indeed, the Post‘s 12-minute “video timeline” was heralded as the definitive source on what occurred, even winning the 2021 duPont-Columbia Award.
One of the most cited articles was 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 claims appear true so what is the “job of the media” when its earlier claims are debunked? Moreover, there was never a basis for the Post to state this conspiracy theory as fact. The IG found “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.” Conversely, it was not done “to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
After the release of the report, the Post responded with a second article by Bump entitled ‘The lingering questions about the clearing of Lafayette Square” which struggles to keep doubt (and the conspiracy theory) alive. Bump emphasizes a scene shortly before the operation where Barr reportedly said “Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?” Bump says that that is a referring to the protesters and still raises a “lingering question.”
However, buried in the article, the Post admits that this statement does not actually contradict the report on the purpose of the operation or its timing. It admits that “those preparations were made before Barr arrived at the scene. That’s compelling evidence for the argument that the area was going to be cleared despite Barr’s presence.” It also states that “The inspector general’s assessment does add new information to the established timeline that reinforces the Park Police’s assertions that the area was cleared to erect new fencing to better protect the White House complex.”
It is not particularly new information. Indeed, I laid out the evidence against the conspiracy theory in my testimony to Congress just a couple weeks after the operation.
From the outset, the most obvious explanation for the clearing of the area was the high level of violence by protesters around the White House. 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. There was in fact an exceptionally high number of officers were injured over the course of days of protests around the White House. 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 the same decision made (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.
Despite the evidence to the contrary (and the admissions in his article) Bump still questions of whether all of this was just “essentially a coincidence.” That is the bizarre element. The Post acknowledges that the report details the approval of the plan at least a day earlier to address the violence around the White House and threat of a breach of the compound. It also details how the operation was supposed to go forward earlier on that day but personnel and fencing were delayed. In the meantime, the White House decided on its own to move forward with a photo op. Barr’s comment would seem the obvious one when told about the plan for a photo op as the personnel were still deploying to clear the area. None of that seems particularly challenging or incomprehensible.
Bump also does not deal at all with his mocking Barr as a liar for denying that the federal operation used tear gas. 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. 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.” Not only did the IG not find evidence of tear gas in the federal operation, 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 arguing that the use of tear gas was entirely appropriate and that the clearing of the area was reasonable. The Biden Administration is also seeking dismissal of the BLM case by declaring “Presidential security is a paramount government interest that weighs heavily in the Fourth Amendment balance.”
What is striking about the Post’s article is that it’s mocking treatment of the denials of the conspiracy theory or the federal use of tear gas. While the Post could in good faith withhold its final judgment and not simply accept the denials of the government, it had no basis to present the photo op allegations as virtual fact. (Indeed, I thought the evidence contradicted the photo op allegation but in my testimony I encouraged Congress to investigate and confirm the facts on the purpose of the operation and the federal denial of using tear gas as opposed to pepper balls). Even in the face of a detailed federal report, the Post is still claiming “lingering questions” — a level of scrutiny and skepticism absent in its fostering the photo op claim over the last year.
Ultimately, the IG Report may have more to say about our media culture than the clearing operation itself. The media actively shaped the news to fit a narrative that is still widely believed. As Tumulty stated about Trump in 2016, the “refusal to apologize is yet another measure of . . . strength” for those who prefer the myth to the facts. There is an old saying in journalism that there are simply some “facts too good to check.” The Post has shown that there are also some false facts too good to correct.