Last summer, amid a nationwide explosion of angry protest following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the area around the White House witnessed several nights of violence.
On Friday May 29, 2020 and continuing into the early morning hours of May 30, the confrontations between protesters and police were especially pitched and the chaos verged uncomfortably close to the White House. The Secret Service reportedly rushed President Trump into an underground bunker in response to the threat, prompting widespread mockery. The next two weekend nights, the security perimeter around the White House expanded northward across Lafayette Park (which sits across a pedestrian thoroughfare from the North Lawn), DC officials imposed a curfew, and violence around the capital escalated as city police and a surreal array of federal forces—some without any clear indicia of the agencies they belonged to—locked horns with the crowds. In the weekend upheaval, the historic St. John’s Church on the north end of the park briefly caught fire.
By that Monday, the DC curfew had been moved up to 7 p.m. My colleague Hunter Walker arrived in the vicinity of the White House before that time, thinking that’d he’d have at least an hour to set up before the nightly clashes between police and protesters erupted. It was not to be. The video he captured shows the violent expulsion of protesters, press, and clergy from the area that began within minutes, led by officers mounted on horseback:
Almost immediately after the violent expulsion, former President Trump emerged from the White House and walked across Lafayette Square through a phalanx of law enforcement officers in riot gear to pose for photos in front of the boarded-up church. Many observers, looking at the proximity of the photo op to the expulsion and a convincing circumstantial case examining then-Attorney General Bill Barr’s appearance at the protest scene before the expulsion began, concluded that the expulsion had been ordered and timed to allow for Trump’s photo op at the church.
Yesterday, the Inspector General for the Department of the Interior released a report on the United States Park Police’s (USPP) involvement in the expulsion that was widely taken to knock down that conclusion. The IG’s executive summary says it was really all about installing a security fence:
The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church. Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow [a Secret Service] contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31. Further, the evidence showed that the USPP did not know about the President’s potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1—hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park.
Most media outlets built their headlines around this conclusion—
CBS: “Watchdog finds clearing of protesters from Lafayette Park wasn't for Trump photo op”
ABC: “Police did not clear Lafayette Square so Trump could hold 'Bible' photo op: Watchdog”
CNN: “Watchdog report finds Park Police did not clear racial injustice protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump's visit to St. John's Church last June”
The problem with these headlines is the actual IG report is too jurisdictionally limited to support, and offers multiple reasons to doubt, its exonerative conclusion. (Indeed, if you click through, you’ll find each of the news stories linked above is more equivocal than its headline.) The oversimplification of the report in these headlines and in tv coverage has led to widespread confusion about its contents. Here are a few important points to know about what the IG report actually says and doesn’t say:
Jurisdictional Limitations. The IG report only concerns itself with the activities and decision-making of one federal agency, the Park Police, out of many who were present at Lafayette Park on June 1, 2020.
This report does not address all the conduct of law enforcement at Lafayette Park on June 1st. The investigators didn’t look into any “independent decisions that did not involve the USPP.” Consequently, when the report speaks about the USPP’s knowledge or how the actions of the Attorney General did or didn’t affect the USPP, those findings can’t be extrapolated to all the federal forces present at the park.
This limitation exists because the report comes to us from the Department of Interior’s Inspector General, which only has jurisdiction over agencies within that cabinet department, including the Park Police.
Other law enforcement agencies on the scene report up to other bosses. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Secret Service are agencies within other cabinet departments—the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, respectively.
Importantly, thanks to a report from the Project on Government Oversight, we know that Homeland Security quashed an investigation by its own Inspector General into the Secret Service’s part in the events of June 1st.
The Secret Service’s Request and Key Redactions. Despite its jurisdictional limits, the IG report documents a number of potentially significant interactions the USPP had with other agencies, in particular the Secret Service.
The highlighted text above is important and cuts against the general thrust of the IG report. It shows that the Secret Service was expressly planning for “the President’s visit” to occur “after protesters had been removed from the area.” This is, of course, a pretty obvious security precaution to take with the President’s life. It illuminates something that the much of the rest of the report labors to obscure—the expulsion of protesters was a necessary precondition to that photo op happening that day. As Dave Levitan put it:I am not sure there is quite as much distance between "tear-gassed protesters for a photo op" and "took advantage of scheduled tear-gassing of protesters for a photo op" as some people seem to claim there is.
Even more intriguing is the redaction that appears in this section of the IG report, obscuring what the acting chief of the USPP told the IG’s investigators. We can tell from context that that the redacted text concerns a “request” from an “official” that the acting chief “rejected.” We can also pretty confidently infer that the request related to the timing of the “clearing operation,” since the acting USPP chief—in his rejection—reiterated his existing plan and explained when the operation would begin. Another sentence with a redaction appears to confirm this interpretation.
These redactions, therefore, obscure what appears to be a key moment, when some official was trying to accelerate the timing of the expulsions for an undisclosed purpose. Was the request made to facilitate the photo op or for some other reason? The report doesn’t tell us. And remember, even if it’s true that the official hiding behind the redactions wasn’t successful in getting USPP to change its schedule, this report by its own terms wouldn’t be able to tell us if other agencies were more amenable to his or her “request.”
There is no explanation in the report for why this significant information is redacted. Knowing who the official was, of course, would help us to investigate whether he or she made any requests to other law enforcement on the scene.
Unexplained Secret Service Decisions. The IG report reveals that the Secret Service took actions that were contrary to the USPP operational plan which affected the overall timing and conduct of the clearing operation.
The IG report says the Secret Service, contrary to the Park Police plan and without explanation, instigated the violence with protesters within six minutes of AG Barr’s visit to the park—which the report says took place at 6:10 p.m. Remember, the IG didn’t interview the Secret Service about its independent decision-making and a separate IG investigation into the Secret Service was quashed.
The report then documents how that unexplained decision by the Secret Service then ripples through the rest of the incident; for example:
Without an explanation of the early Secret Service deployment, which is outside the scope of the DOI IG report, we can’t rule out the possibility that Trump’s schedule determined the timing of the assault on protesters. Without knowing more about the official who was apparently seeking to move up that timing, whose identity and affiliation are mysteriously redacted in the DOI IG report, we can’t pursue an important lead that might explain that early deployment. Without an investigation that looks beyond the Park Police to all the participants involved in that violent affair, a task the IG report expressly disavows, we can’t make particularly meaningful conclusions. The uncertainties left by the report don’t mean that we need to overstate our certainty in the other direction—we really don’t know why the Secret Service jumped out early—but news headlines should reflect the report’s limitations and its deliberate blindspots, not the government’s party line.