Attorney General William Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials on the ground to clear the streets around Lafayette Square just before President Donald Trump spoke Monday, a Justice Department official said, a directive that prompted a show of aggression against a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, drawing widespread condemnation.
Officers from the U.S. Park Police and other agencies used smoke canisters, riot shields, batons and officers on horseback to shove and chase people gathered to protest the death of George Floyd. At one point, a line of police rushed a group of protesters standing on H Street, many of whom were standing still with their hands up, forcing them to race away, coughing from smoke. Some were struck by rubber bullets.
Secret Service officers then surrounded the area and created a protective zone for Trump, who moments later crossed the street and made an appearance outside St. John's Episcopal Church.
On Tuesday, however, federal officials offered conflicting reasons for the forcible removal of the protesters, seeking to separate the move from Trump's visit to the church.
The White House asserted that the crowd was dispersed to help enforce the city's 7 p.m. curfew. Meanwhile, two federal law enforcement officials said the decision had been made late Sunday night or early Monday morning to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square by one block.
The plan was to be executed, according to the Justice Department official, the following afternoon. Barr was a part of the decision-making process, the official said, was not authorized to speak ahead of Barr addressing the matter himself publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department official said that in the afternoon, Barr went to survey the scene and found the perimeter had not been extended. The attorney general conferred with law enforcement officials on the ground.
"He conferred with them to check on the status, and basically said, 'This needs to be done. Get it done,'" the Justice Department official said.
Police soon moved on the protesters.
Throughout Tuesday, several federal agencies involved in the response declined to answer questions about who ordered the use of force and the clearing of the park, which occurred just before Trump's visit to the park.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on who gave the order, referring questions to law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Park Police said the agency would have a statement, but did not provide one as of Tuesday afternoon.
Defense officials on Tuesday said the National Guard did not participate in decision to clear Lafayette Square on Monday evening and did not take part in firing any rubber bullets or gas.
D.C. city officials said they were not involved in the decision to use force, which Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, called "shameful."
"I didn't see any provocation that would warrant the deployment of munitions, and especially for the purpose of moving the president across the street," the mayor said at a Tuesday news conference.
Trump had directed Barr to personally "lead" the response to the unrest in D.C. Monday night, according to Justice Department spokeswoman. Less than an hour before police moved to clear the peaceful demonstrators from in front of Lafayette Park, Barr was spotted on video talking to officials at the scene.
Around the same time, White House deputy chief of operations Tony Ornato contacted the Secret Service to arrange for the president to make a brief, unplanned appearance outside St. John's Church, according to two people familiar with the plans. Following protocol, the Secret Service alerted other law enforcement agencies it would need help clearing the area for the president's safety, they said.
Black-clad officers and agents of the Secret Service's civil disturbance unit stood by during the tense confrontation with protesters and then helped secure the emptied out streets.
Minutes after the protesters were removed, Trump arrived at the church and took a picture outside, holding a bible, at roughly 6:45 p.m.
The Justice Department official said Barr "assumed that any resistance from the protesters of being moved would be met with typical crowd control measures."
The official said Barr had been told on the scene there were reports of the crowd passing rocks among themselves, and a bottle had been thrown in his direction. Post reporters who were at the square did not witness protesters using any rocks.
The official defended Barr's decision. "This plan was happening, regardless of any plans of the president," the official said.
The use of such aggressive force startled some veteran former officers of the Secret Service and other federal agencies, because it appeared to be rushed and unprovoked by protesters.
The line of officers rushing protesters, many of whom were standing still with their arms in the air, violated the normal protocol for clearing protesters, something the Secret Service accomplishes dozens of times a year in Lafayette Park without ever tossing smoke canisters or using riot shields.
"Usually officers hold a line and don't move forward unless there is provocation," said one former Secret Service agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe operational procedures. "The officers give constant warnings and communicate clearly with the crowd. But here it seems like there is some time pressure; they were acting like a bomb is about to go off."
Another veteran former Secret Service agent who reviewed video of the treatment of protesters said he feared that the order from Barr signaled a worrisome shift in who calls the shots about deploying use of force.
"We protect the president," he said of the Secret Service. "We don't report to the president. It feels like that line has now been blurred."
The Secret Service, which has the legal power to clear any area for the president's safety, did not respond to questions seeking an explanation for their decision-making.
"For operational security reasons, the U.S. Secret Service does not discuss our protective means and methods," the agency said in a statement.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that "the perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation's most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police."
However, both reporters who were on the scene and protesters said they could not make out any audible warnings.
Zach Slavin, 32, said he was leaning against the metal barricade separating authorities from protesters when he saw the line of officers starting to move up in coordinated bursts. He heard "mumbled announcements" over the loudspeaker but was not able to discern what was being said.
"There was absolutely nothing that was understandable," said Slavin, adding that he had been following police guidance throughout the day.
At 6:30 p.m., Slavin said he said officers passing down instructions down the line, then suddenly burst forward past the barricade. A thick cloud descended over the crowd, he said, and armed officers on foot started firing rubber pellets at people.
"There was no warning," Slavin said. Dressed in a bandanna around his face, Slavin began coughing and felt gas stinging his eyes. As he tried to break free from the crowd, several canisters were dropped several feet away from him and exploded. These explosives were dropped in the middle of the crowd, within several feet of at least a hundred people or more, he said. Officers continued firing rubber pellets at protesters who were already backing up.
"The [officers] were acting like terrorists," said Slavin, an 11-year D.C. resident. "I was being chased by police on the streets of my own city."
U.S. Park Police spokesman Eduardo Delgado disputed that officers weren't at risk. He said officers were provoked by protesters throwing frozen water bottles and there were other indicators of more serious potential harm the crowd could do.
"We had intel that there were glass bottles they had stashed at the church to throw at us," Delgado said, of protesters' potential to harm officers. "They had caches of supplies, bricks."
However, Arlington County manager Mark Schwartz said the county police had been directed Monday night "to clear a section of H Street so the President could walk over to St. John's for a photo opp," he said. "The mutual aid agreement is not put in place to allow for a blatantly political act. Crowd control is a far cry from assisting someone to stand in front of a church."
Arlington County Board chair Libby Garvey said Tuesday that Arlington police were taken by surprise Monday evening when they were "urgently" told to clear H Street. "All our guys knew was they were supposed to help clear H Street to the edges so new barriers could be put in place," Garvey said, after a briefing by Arlington Police Chief Jay Farr. "Our guys never pulled their batons, they used their shields. Suddenly, it became urgent. Even the Secret Service didn't know until minutes before that the president was going to come through. "
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation's capital, wrote to Secret Service Director James Murray Tuesday demanding records for how the decision to use force was made.