Attorney General William P. Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials to clear the streets around Lafayette Square just before President 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.
The forceful effort to squelch the demonstration came as Trump has sought to flex the federal government’s muscles in response to a wave of unrest across the country, filling the streets in the District with federal law enforcement officers from multiple agencies.
On Tuesday, city officials said the White House had pushed to take control of the D.C. police force to quell protests, an effort that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she rejected. Still, by Tuesday evening, National Guard Humvees were streaming through downtown as officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Park Police were positioned throughout the capital.
Bowser said that she had not requested any help from outside the city and that she has sought to fend off Trump’s attempts to deploy active-duty military forces throughout Washington.
The president — furious about criticism that he has not done enough to stop the protests and violence that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — told senior advisers Monday that they had to show they could control the streets of Washington and the area around the White House, according to two people familiar with his comments who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
If they did not, it would send a bad signal to the rest of the country and they would look weak, he said. “You can’t have a burning church in front of the White House was the president’s message,” one person said.
Trump cheered on the dramatic show of force, tweeting Tuesday: “D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination.”
His willingness to press the outer limits of presidential powers was sharply denounced by local leaders and congressional Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who compared Trump’s actions to that of a dictator. Several Democratic House chairmen pressed the administration for testimony and documents about the decision to disperse protesters outside the White House with force.
And it did not dissuade protesters. By Tuesday evening, as the curfew arrived, several thousand people amassed at the edge of a fenced-off Lafayette Square, facing a line of law enforcement officials. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” hundreds chanted.
On Monday evening, officers from the Park Police and other agencies used smoke canisters, pepper balls, riot shields, batons and officers on horseback to shove and chase people gathered to protest the death of Floyd. At one point, a line of police rushed a group of protesters standing on H Street NW, 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 Church, joined by Barr and other administration officials.
On Tuesday, the administration offered conflicting explanations 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, although District police had not requested such assistance. The Park Police said that its officers responded after protesters began throwing projectiles.
Other administration officials said the move to clear the crowd was part of a previously planned effort to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square. Two federal law enforcement officials said that authorities decided either late Sunday or early Monday to broaden it by one block and that Barr participated in those discussions.
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