Disturbing new details are emerging about the violent crackdown on protesters that preceded President Trump’s Bible photo op near the White House. What was supposed to capture Trump bravely standing up for “law and order” is rapidly coming to typify his megalomania, his terror of looking weak, and — perversely enough — his profound contempt for the rule of law.
The Post has assembled a remarkable reconstruction of the decision-making behind the crackdown, which cleared the way for Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square to a nearby church. It suggests the violations of protesters’ rights were even more serious than we previously thought.
First, we need to foreground a crucial fact: Trump and his handlers have gone to extraordinary lengths to showcase this moment as a great triumph. Now that new details suggest serious abuses behind it — and now that senior officials are rapidly distancing themselves from it — that fact looks a whole lot worse.
Disturbing new questions arise
At the core of the new Post report are two questions: Who issued the order to clear away the protesters, and to what degree was it linked to the decision to hold that photo op?
The administration has defended itself by claiming the two were not linked, and that the removal action carried out a decision to expand the security perimeter around the White House that had been made in advance.
But numerous other officials, including the chiefs of the D.C. police and National Guard Bureau, have now challenged this claim. They say they had no advance notice that the U.S. Park Police would commence forcible removal. That undercuts the notion that it was part of a pre-planned effort.
What’s more, at the time, Trump was in a rage inside the White House about reports that he was hunkered down, the report documents. White House officials were discussing expanding the perimeter, but they were also discussing holding an event to showcase Trump in control — the visit to the church.
Officials disputing the administration’s account told The Post that, even if the perimeter expansion had been discussed, there was never any firm indication of a time when it would happen. And then, right after Trump made the decision to walk to the church, this was relayed to the Secret Service on the ground, whereupon the crackdown suddenly ensued, including chemical gassing and violent shoving with shields.
That seems to support the very connection that the administration denies. But even though this still remains to be proved, there’s still another revelation here: The clearing away of the protesters might have violated a 2015 court settlement between the Park Police and the Justice Department.
That 2015 settlement set new rules for how federal law enforcement engages with protesters, requiring three audible warnings about pending dispersal, plus the identification of avenues for protesters to disperse themselves peacefully.
The Post’s reconstruction of events concludes that those things almost surely didn’t happen.
Worse and worse
Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute, says there was already a strong case that the protesters’ First Amendment rights were violated.
“The government can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech in public forums, and in some circumstances it can clear protesters to protect public safety or the safety of public officials,” Jaffer told me.
“But the First Amendment requires that the restrictions be reasonable,” Jaffer said. “They went from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds.”
The 2015 settlement more clearly defined what law enforcement must do to protect protesters’ rights in a situation like this, yet this appears to have been violated as well, Jaffer continued.
Jaffer said the settlement “seems to have recognized" the First Amendment rights of protesters to gather in public forums, and "placed specific limits on the government’s authority to use force and other aggressive tactics in this kind of context.”
“These limits were totally disregarded here,” Jaffer said.
A glorious triumph
Now let’s recall that Trump’s top image-makers went to great lengths to promote what happened as a glorious triumph.
Even worse, as Politico reported, these efforts were part of a broader push to highlight Trump’s threat to use the military to quell protests — which Trump had threatened in a speech just before his heroic walk — in hopes that it would “win over seniors and suburban women.”
Since then this has imploded spectacularly. The defense secretary distanced himself from Trump’s threats. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly apologized for joining the walk with Trump, even issuing an extraordinary reaffirmation of the military’s commitment to the principles of the Constitution.
In other words, this episode stands as the precipitating moment at which some of the darkest and most seminal truths about the Trump presidency emerged. Trump’s abuses led military officials to feel the need to signal to the country that something is very wrong, that our values and ideals are under serious threat.
We are now learning that the crackdown might have been more tightly tied to Trump’s desire to stage a messianic and megalomaniacal photo op than previously known — and that the abuses undertaken to facilitate it might have been worse than we thought.
A full reckoning with this episode is urgently needed. When that happens, it will indeed stand as an iconic moment of the Trump presidency — yet not at all how he and his spinners had hoped.