Opinion

Trump's false Lafayette Square exoneration

Don't be fooled by the media's credulous acceptance of a new report

One of the most notorious events of the Trump presidency was the attack at Lafayette Square on June 1 last year. Cops from numerous law enforcement agencies suddenly charged into a crowd of peaceful protesters, beating and gassing them badly, and causing dozens of injuries. After the park was cleared, Trump strolled through it and conducted a photo op in front of a nearby church. It was widely reported that the park was cleared because Trump wanted to do that photo op.

The inspector general (IG) of the U.S. Park Police recently published a report taking issue with this history. The "evidence did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park," wrote IG Mark Lee Greenblatt, who instead found that the park was cleared so that some fencing could be put up.

Multiple news outlets repeated the IG line. "Federal probe: Protest not broken up due to Trump photo op," reads an AP headline. "Report: Park Police didn't clear Lafayette Square protesters for Trump visit," said the Washington Post. Similar stories can be found at NBC, ABC, and elsewhere, which sparked gleeful triumph from right-wing commentators. "Completely and Totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park!" said Trump himself in a statement.

But don't be led astray by the headlines or the conservative propaganda here. This report does not actually exonerate Trump, and even the most charitable possible conception of events is hideously damning of the former president.

Contrary to Greenblatt's summary, and the implication of all the above headlines (though the bodies of the articles are more accurately nuanced), the report does not firmly conclude that Trump's visit had nothing to do with the park clearance, and more importantly, does not remotely count as a thorough investigation into that question.

Now, the report does say that the clearance had been planned for days to install some fencing, and that happened long before Trump decided to visit. But it also says that the specific time of the clearance had not been settled, and that at about 6:10 on that day, Attorney General Barr came out of the White House and asked the USPP commander: "Are these people still going to be here when [President Trump] comes out?" to which the commander responded, "Are you freaking kidding me?" and hung his head.

USPP personnel insisted to the IG that Barr's request did not affect their plans (a highly dubious assertion), but it was actually the Secret Service who initiated the park clearance. "At approximately 6:16 p.m., contrary to the operational plan and before the USPP gave the first dispersal warning, the Secret Service entered H Street from Madison Place … the Secret Service lieutenant later apologized for the early entry onto H Street during the operation but did not explain why it occurred." About seven minutes later the clearance began in earnest.

A very obvious question would be whether Barr, or someone else from the White House, ordered the Secret Service to start attacking the protesters. The IG did not even try to figure this out: "[We] did not seek to interview Attorney General William Barr, White House personnel, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, MPD personnel, or Secret Service personnel," it reads. The presence of the BOP is another giant question mark: "The USPP acting chief of police and the USPP incident commander told us they did not request the BOP's assistance and did not know who dispatched them to Lafayette Park on June 1." One wonders why they bothered even writing this report at all.

A full accounting into the atrocity at Lafayette Park a year ago would require deposing all central participants, above all Barr, Trump, and the Secret Service leadership. Without that, it can't be taken as a definitive word on anything, end of discussion. Even then, its limited account shows that the police knew Trump was coming, and that Barr attempted to get them to speed up the clearance so it would be done before Trump came out.

One of the worst takes on the report (as usual these days) comes from Glenn Greenwald. "The IG's conclusion could not be clearer: the media narrative was false from start to finish," he writes on his Substack blog. To start with, it's important to be clear about the order of events. Greenwald, in what has become his signature style of duplicitous adverb-laden Trump apologia, accuses many journalists of consciously lying back then. "Watch how easily and often and aggressively and readily they just spread lies," he writes of a CNN segment with Erin Burnett and Don Lemon from the day of the assault.

It is highly telling that a boastful self-described critic of the CIA and the Deep State like Greenwald credulously accepts the account of law enforcement when it lets him own the libs (also not for the first time). But even if we grant for the sake of the argument that the IG report completely exculpates Trump, the report only just came out. Greenwald is treating the revelation of new information as proof that people were lying, when in fact these journalists were just reporting what was available to them at the time. He pulled this same childishly dishonest trick with the publication of the D.C. medical examiner's report on Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick.

Anyway, all this is largely ancillary to the question of the horrendous injustice of what happened at the park. Trump was the president, and all the people involved — the Park Police, the Secret Service, Barr, and so on — worked for him. He could have ordered the clearance to be done carefully and with reasonable (or any) warnings, but did not. Immediately afterward, Trump gave a short speech where he boasted about what he'd do to protesters: "As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property." Then Trump chose to go stand in front of the church holding up a Bible, giving every impression that the only point of clearing the park was so he could do that.

In the following days, Trumpworld openly discussed the point of beating protesters, which was to look tough. "It was just to win the news cycle," one told The Washington Post. "He was elected to take bold dramatic action and that's what he did," said former Trump adviser Jason Miller.

In short, whether the park clearance was initially planned as a cynical political stunt, Trump instantly turned it into one. His callous, incompetent style of government ensured the clearance would be done with maximum brutality. The only reason he's disclaiming responsibility for it now is because it did not play well in the media. If the PR stunt had worked as planned, he'd be boasting about it to this day.

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