This article has been updated with additional reporting.
This is not the official line from the Trump administration or from government officials. An unnamed representative of the Park Police, which helped clear the area, told WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein that the action was a response to its officers being pelted with water bottles, a claim reiterated in a later statement. The department “didn’t know President Trump would be walking across the park several minutes later,” Augenstein was told.
The White House originally said that the forcible dispersal of the vocal-but-peaceful crowd was intended to help enforce the city’s curfew, which went into effect at 7 p.m. On Tuesday afternoon, a Justice Department official told The Post that Barr himself instructed the square to be cleared to effect an expansion of the security perimeter around the White House. Barr on Friday denied being responsible for the decision in an interview with the Associated Press.
Whatever the origin, the result is well-documented: Officers from several agencies closed in on protesters, using smoke canisters, irritants, explosive devices, batons and horses to clear the area.
A few minutes later, Trump walked through, posed for photos and returned to the White House. The timeline of events strongly suggests that it was this trip which spurred the crackdown on the assembled crowd.
The area north of the White House
6:04 p.m. The White House communications office sends out a notice to reporters that an event has been added to Trump’s calendar: a 6:15 news briefing in the Rose Garden.
6:08 p.m. The Post’s James Hohmann, who was in the square, spots Barr arriving. According to a later New York Times report, the attorney general arrived from the White House.
6:10 p.m. Barr appears behind assembled security forces in Lafayette Square in a live broadcast from CNN.
While there, CNN captures footage of Barr speaking with several people who were already on the scene. At first, Barr’s group includes only his entourage of men in suits and a man in a riot helmet whose uniform appears to indicate that he’s a uniformed member of the Secret Service. The group stands around for a moment.
Soon a man in a white shirt and black vest arrives, apparently a representative of the Park Police. Barr points to the north, in the direction of H Street and, beyond, St. John’s Church. After he does so, a man who arrived with Barr and is observing the conversation checks his watch.
Trump is scheduled to speak in five minutes.
Again, the official explanation of this conversation is that Barr was informing the security team of the decision made hours earlier to extend the security perimeter a block to the north. Barr again points to the north as a man who joined the group hangs his head as though in resignation. A man who arrived with Barr pats him on the back.
As Barr was speaking with the officials at the square, Trump’s staff was informing the Secret Service about his plan to visit the church, according to reporting from The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig, Matt Zapotosky and Rebecca Tan. They write:
“Around the same time, White House deputy chief of operations Tony Ornato contacted the Secret Service to arrange for the president to make a brief, unplanned appearance outside St. John’s Church, according to two people familiar with the plans. Following protocol, the Secret Service alerted other law enforcement agencies it would need help clearing the area for the president’s safety, they said.”
6:11 p.m. Barr and his aides move back in the direction they came.
6:18 p.m. According to Post reporting, Secret Service members begin to move onto H Street before pulling back.
6:21 p.m. A radio transmission obtained by The Post captures law enforcement officials checking on the status of personnel who can deploy irritants like pepper balls.
6:22 p.m. According to Post reporting, Barr leaves the square. An announcement is made ordering the crowd to disperse, but it’s not audible.
6:27 p.m. Military police who are guarding the southern edge of the protest area in the square move forward, toward the protesters. A video from Reuters captures the moment the police begin to move.
6:33 p.m. The statement from the Park Police pinpoints this as the moment at which the effort to clear protesters began. Post reporting suggests that the push began at 6:32.
“At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids,” the statement reads. “The protestors also climbed onto a historic building at the north end of Lafayette Park that was destroyed by arson days prior. Intelligence had revealed calls for violence against the police, and officers found caches of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the street.”
A Post review of video footage showed protesters throwing water bottles, but not bricks or caustic liquids.
6:35 p.m. Over the next 20-plus minutes, police on horseback and others in riot gear with shields and clubs can be seen moving protesters. In the Reuters video above, you can hear explosive devices and see smoke begin to swirl. (It begins at about the 28:21 mark.)
In this still from shortly after the police begin moving, you can see St. John’s Church at upper left.
6:43 p.m. Trump begins speaking from the Rose Garden.
The speech is delivered from a teleprompter and lasts about seven minutes.
6:50 p.m. “Thank you very much,” Trump concludes, looking up from his prepared remarks. “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.”
7:01 p.m. Trump departs the White House for the church with a number of security staffers and administration officials. Walking a short distance behind him as the group walks across the North Lawn of the White House is Barr, seen in a still from a video produced by the White House. (In the still below, Barr is pictured second from the left in the row of people immediately behind Trump, who is in the foreground.)
The path the group takes heads up the west side of the North Lawn, emerging into Lafayette Square at its southwest corner, the direction from which Barr arrived an hour earlier.
To get to the church, the group passes through the area just cleared of protesters.
“Remnants of gas has your pooler and other[s] coughing and choking,” the pool reporter on duty wrote in an update.
7:06 p.m. Trump arrives at the church and spends several minutes posing for photos alone and with other officials, including Barr.
7:11 p.m. Trump and his coterie leave the church.
7:18 p.m. They arrive back at the White House, according to the pool report. In short order, Trump’s visit to the church sparks broad outcry — and, among his supporters, accolades.
What we’re asked to believe is that Barr took it upon himself to instruct the team maintaining security outside the White House to enforce an extended perimeter encompassing the square — an action that coincidentally occurred immediately after the White House announced an appearance by Trump and simultaneously with the White House informing other officials of Trump’s plan to visit the church.
The timeline of events makes that seem unlikely.
Update: During a news conference on Thursday, Barr claimed that there was “no correlation” between extending the perimeter and Trump’s visit to the church.
“I think the president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street to the church of presidents,” Barr said. “I don’t necessarily view that as a political act. I think it was entirely appropriate for him to do. I did not know that that he was going to do that until later in the day after our plans were well underway to to move the perimeter — so there was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president’s going over to the church.”
You’ll notice what Barr doesn’t deny here: that the immediate spur for instructing that the perimeter be expanded was Trump’s walk. The visit to the church may not have been why the decision was made to extend the perimeter. But that doesn’t mean that “later in the day” when Barr learned about the visit — apparently at around 6 p.m. — he didn’t then need to ensure that the perimeter extension happened as soon as possible.
Peter Stevenson contributed to this report.