I recently discussed how the Inspector General and a federal court have dismissed the widely reported conspiracy theory that the Lafayette Park area was cleared last year to make way for President Donald Trump’s controversial photo op in front of St. John’s Church. I noted that University of Texas Professor Steve Vladeck (who is a CNN contributor) was one of those claiming this theory as an established fact. Vladeck has now responded with a defense that is striking in its sheer mendacity. It is, however, illustrative how false narratives are promulgated in the media and then, when shown to be unsupported, are dismissed or barely acknowledged. What makes this response different is the effort to shift the blame to a Hill reporter, who actually states the opposite of what Vladeck suggested. Indeed, Vladeck achieves a Trifecta of sorts in misrepresenting the Hill column, my column, and his own column.
Many of us criticized Trump’s photo op in front of the church as well as the level of force used to clear the area of Lafayette Park. Yet, media and legal experts like Vladeck went further to claim that former Attorney General Bill Barr cleared the park in order to hold the photo op. There was never evidence to support that factual conclusion. I testified in Congress not long after the clearing of the area and stated that the conspiracy theory was already contradicted by the available evidence. I encouraged Congress to investigate the question and establish the truth of the matter. The issue was not whether it was worthy of investigation but whether it was established as fact.
We recently discussed how the Inspector General report on the Lafayette Park protests and the debunking of this conspiracy theory. Inspector General of the Department of Interior conducted an investigation over the last year and found that the clearing was not done “to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
This week, federal judge Dabney L. Friedrich has dismissed the lawsuit by the ACLU and Black Lives Matter as based on unsupported and unsubstantiated claims against the federal agencies. What is most striking in the opinion is the utter lack of evidence presented by ACLU, which encouraged the Court to assume a conspiracy to clear the park for the photo op and to deny the right to protest. The court found nothing but pure conjecture. Ironically, the court allowed the lawsuit against the MPD under Mayor Muriel Bowser to continue. The Bowser Administration admitted recently that it used tear gas near the park on that night and that such use was perfectly reasonable— a striking departure from what Bowser has stated publicly.
In prior columns, I have discussed the widespread repetition of the photo op myth as fact. That included the Washington Post coverage 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 likely true. Recently, Bump wrote an equally bizarre spin on the controversy where he grudgingly acknowledged the evidence supporting Barr while entirely ignoring the tear gas controversy. However, the Bump spin pales in comparison to the wholesale revisionism of Vladeck.
In the columns, I noted that there was never clear evidence to support the conclusion of Vladeck and that, within days of the operation, evidence emerged that contradicted the claim. I wrote:
“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.”
So there can be no question as to what Vladeck has said in his most recent comments, here is his five part defense (you can also read them here):
1/5: Turley is pulling a real Turley here, so let me be clear about what’s actually true. On June 9, 2020 (this date will matter), @rgoodlaw and I wrote a long @just_security post on the Attorney General’s power, in general, to direct military forces in response to civil unrest. @JonathanTurley
Despite the absence of evidence, legal experts like 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.”
Replying to @steve_vladeck
2/5: As *part* of that post, we quoted from and linked to a news story in @thehill reporting—based upon high-level but unnamed DOJ sources—that it was Barr who had ordered the clearing of Lafayette Park. Our post: https://justsecurity.org/70672/the-untold-power-of-bill-barr-to-direct-us-military-forces-in-case-of-civil-unrest/… The Hill piece: Barr personally ordered law enforcement to push back Lafayette Square
Attorney General William Barr personally ordered for the perimeter near the White House to be extended, pushing protesters away from Lafayette Square shortly before President Trump spoke in the area. thehill.com
3/5: One year later, the DOI Inspector General has concluded that Barr was *not* behind that controversial move. So be it. But Turley’s tweet is not saying that *The Hill* (and, thus, our reliance on it) *was* wrong; he’s saying I’ve “continued to claim” that it was Barr’s doing.
4/5: In fact, I’ve done no such thing. Ryan and I linked to a news story in wide circulation as part of a broader analysis that didn’t actually *turn* on that specific episode. Indeed, the DOI IG Report doesn’t alter the legal analysis in our post one iota. It’s still accurate.
5/5: But Turley’s too interested in misleading readers into thinking that it’s something far more nefarious—and ongoing. So he says I’ve “continued to claim” something that I wrote 365 days ago—and even then, only by citing a contemporaneous news account. Not surprising, but ugh.
The only thing we agree on is the last word “ugh.” In truth, I am surprised by Vladeck’s denials because I still believe that, as academics, we have a duty of candor and honesty. Indeed, that is why I wanted to lay the facts bare.
- Vladeck Misrepresents The Hill Column
Vladeck’s first line of defense is essentially “he said it first.” The real culprit it would appear is Zack Budryk who writes for the Hill (For full disclosure, I also write as a columnist for the Hill). Vladeck insists that he was just quoting and relying on Budryk. The problem is that Budryk never says that Barr ordered the clearing for the photo op — the objection to Vladeck’s past claims. All Budryk says is that Barr ordered the clearing. However, that was established within 24 hours by Barr himself. There was never any question that the area was cleared and that Barr ordered it. The question is the purpose of the operation and Vladeck insisted that Barr ordered federal officers “to forcibly clear protestors in Lafayette Park to achieve a photo op for Trump.” The reason I did not say that Budryk was “wrong” is because he was not. It was Vladeck who was wrong.
Now here is the kicker. Budryk stated the opposite of what Vladeck suggests:
“The official told the Post that the attorney general had “assumed that any resistance from the protesters of being moved would be met with typical crowd-control measures” and that Barr had been told a bottle had been thrown in his direction.
“This plan was happening, regardless of any plans of the president,” the official said.”
That was just one day after the operation and Vladeck obviously read it before making his false claim that the operation was ordered by Barr to make way for the photo op. Now, Vladeck insists that he was merely relying on Budryk to support the conspiracy theory when Budryk correctly refuted the theory.
- Vladeck Misrepresents My Column
Vladeck then misrepresents my article. He states the IG report came a year later but that I falsely stated that he “continued to claim” that it was Barr’s doing. It is another falsehood clearly contradicted by the column itself. I was referring to the fact that Vladeck made his factual claim days after the protest when countervailing evidence had already emerged. That includes the very article that Vladeck has cited. Moreover, there was no direct evidence supporting the photo op myth. As noted above, I stated “Ample evidence emerged in the days after the protests to reinforce the account of Barr and others … Nevertheless, media and legal experts continued to claim as a fact that this was all done for the photo op.” Vladeck’s factual claim occurred a week after the operation when there was ample evidence, at a minimum, to refute any claim of photo op conspiracy as a fact.
- Vladeck Misrepresents His Own Column
Vladeck’s final defense is more of a shrug than a spin. He notes “One year later, the DOI Inspector General has concluded that Barr was *not* behind that controversial move. So be it.” That is quite a concession from claiming as a fact that Barr cleared the area for the photo op to an “oh well, maybe he didn’t.” This theory was shredded within a week of the operation. There was no support for Vladeck’s claim when he made it (and certainly not the article that he cites, which said the opposite of his claim). Yet, Vladeck never corrected his claims over the last year or even suggested that his analysis (while popular) was likely false. Indeed, he still does not admit error. He ends his defense with “Indeed, the DOI IG Report doesn’t alter the legal analysis in our post one iota. It’s still accurate.”
Putting aside the court decision finding no credible evidence to support this conspiracy theory, the IG Report directly contradicts Vladeck’s sensational claim. Compare just these two factual statements:
Steve Vladeck: Barr ordered federal officers “to forcibly clear protestors in Lafayette Park to achieve a photo op for Trump.”
The Inspector General: The clearing was not done “to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church.”
Yet, Vladeck is still claiming that the report (and his acknowledgment that Barr did not order the clearing for the photo op) does not change his legal analysis “one iota.” The only way to make such a ridiculous statement is to focus on the legal analysis as opposed to his statement of facts. (It is worth noting that the federal agencies under both Trump and Biden argued that they did have full legal authority for the operation and just prevailed on that basis in federal court). However, Vladeck is being criticized for his factual claim that fueled this conspiracy theory. Just as there was never any question about Barr ordering the clearing, Vladeck is simply defending a different point rather than addressing his spreading this sensational and irresponsible conspiracy theory as fact.