He gave an account of the incident that belied what reporters and demonstrators experienced — claiming, for example, that no tear gas was used, even though people at the scene were hit with a gas that stung their eyes and induced coughing. And he made the claim that pepper spray is “not a chemical irritant.”
“It’s not chemical,” Barr said.
Park Police have conceded using “smoke canisters and pepper balls.” At least one spent canister recovered from the streets outside the park Monday by reporters was clearly labeled “Skat Shell OC,” a compound that, when it gets into the eyes and nose, causes searing pain, coughing and mucus secretion.
The police move, which has been widely condemned, came just before President Trump addressed the nation and then walked across the cleared area so he could pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Barr said that over the weekend, demonstrators had attacked police, burned down a structure in the square and set a fire in the church. He said that on Monday about 2 p.m., he told police agencies that the perimeter outside the square, which is in front of the White House, would have to be pushed northward by one block.
At that point, Barr said, he did not know of Trump’s plans for a speech that day. He has previously said Trump’s going to the church was “entirely appropriate.”
Barr said police asked the crowd to move three times Monday. Reporters on the scene and demonstrators said they could not make out any audible warnings. Barr said some in the crowd threw projectiles.
“They were not peaceful protesters,” Barr said. “And that’s one of the big lies that the media seems to be perpetuating at this point.”
Barr was spotted at the scene just before police moved on protesters, and a Justice Department official and the White House press secretary have said he told law enforcement on the ground to extend the perimeter as part of the plan that had been hatched earlier. But in an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, Barr seemed to try to distance himself from what police did, claiming he did not give the “tactical” order for law enforcement officers to move in.
Asked on “Face the Nation” whether he would have done anything different in hindsight, Barr said, “I haven’t studied the events retrospectively in detail, but I think in general you had the qualified law enforcement officials with shields warning and moving a line slowly. They had mounted officers moving slowly, directing people to move. And most people complied.”
In the same interview, Barr signaled that he was reluctant to open a broad “pattern-or-practice” investigation into possible systemic problems at the Minneapolis Police Department, arguing that the actions of one officer do not necessarily indicate widespread problems.
The comments came as host Margaret Brennan pressed Barr on his views on whether there are systemic problems with policing in America.
“Doesn’t opening the pattern-or-practice investigation into a place like Minneapolis, where there are questions about the broader issues with policing — it wasn’t just the one officer — wouldn’t that answer that question?” Brennan asked.
A pattern-or-practice investigation, run by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, takes a broad look at the practices of a police department and typically results in a court-approved agreement to force reforms.
Such investigations were used frequently in the Obama administration but have been all but abandoned under Trump. Civil liberties advocates and Democratic lawmakers have called on the Justice Department to investigate the Minneapolis Police Department more broadly alongside the civil rights investigation into the death of George Floyd at law enforcement hands. It was Floyd’s death that sparked what are now massive protests across the country and in other nations against police violence.
“That’s exactly the reaction that I think has been a problem in the past. . . . Just reacting to this incident by immediately putting the department under investigation doesn’t necessarily result in improving the situation,” Barr said, noting that state authorities were already examining the department.
“We stand ready to act if we think it’s necessary,” Barr said. “But I don’t think necessarily starting a pattern-or-practice investigation at this stage is warranted.”
Asked whether he thinks there is “systemic racism in law enforcement,” Barr said, “I think there’s racism in the United States still, but I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”
“I understand the distrust, however, of the African American community given the history in this country,” Barr said. “I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”