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IG: Park Police did not clear square for Trump photo op

President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog found that the actions of the U.S. Park Police in clearing demonstrators from Lafayette Square in June 2020 were not orchestrated so that President Donald Trump could enter the park and pose before a nearby church.

On the night of May 29, 2020, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota, protesters of police violence gathered around the White House, including in adjacent Lafayette Square.

Three days later, on the afternoon of June 1, members of the U.S. Park Police, which is part of the Interior Department, led other police and law enforcement agencies in clearing the square of demonstrators with the use of tear gas, pepper ball projectiles, riot shields and horses. Moments later, Trump walked from the White House through the park and in front of St. John’s Church, where he held a Bible aloft and posed for news photographers.

In a 41-page report released Wednesday, the department’s inspector general said an investigation did not turn up evidence that the U.S. Park Police had cleared the square for Trump to enter.

The report focused on the actions of the USPP and made no determinations about whether other law enforcement agencies present that day might have coordinated with the White House.

The report found fault with USPP tactics, saying its officers had not made adequately loud warnings to the crowd of demonstrators to disperse.

A small and fairly obscure police department, with a presence in just three American cities, the USPP found itself thrust into the national spotlight in the past year, with official investigations from the inspector general and Congress, scrutiny from the public and harsh words from lawmakers.

Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt requested the report, which covers events in and near the square from May 29 through June 3.

At a House hearing in July, then-acting Police Chief Gregory Monahan said the orders to clear the square did not come from the White House, Bernhardt or William Barr, the attorney general at the time.

“We did not clear the park for a photo op,” Monahan said. The report supports that statement.

Mark Greenblatt, the inspector general, said in a letter that the USPP cleared the square so a contractor could install a new fence meant to deter climbing at the edge of the square and to protect federal property and police officers.

Greenblatt wrote that “the evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day.”

He added: “As such, we determined that 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.”

In a statement after the report’s publication, the former president thanked the inspector general for “Completely and Totally exonerating” him.

But Greenblatt said the USPP and the Secret Service did not communicate clearly and dinged the USPP for not loudly enough warning the protesters to disperse.

“We also found that although the USPP used a sound-amplifying long-range acoustic device to issue three dispersal warnings to the crowd on June 1, not everyone could hear the warnings,” the report summary says.

Two witnesses testified in late June last year that the USPP did not provide warnings to the crowd to leave.

Federal police, including officers at the USPP, are required under a 2015 legal settlement to issue three loud and clear warnings when dispersing protests. They are also required to leave room for protesters to exit the area in question.

The inspector general is also investigating the Interior Department’s activities in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

The USPP named a new chief, Pamela Smith, in February. She is the first Black woman to lead the department.


(c) 2021 CQ Roll Call

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