It has been a week, too, since the most infamous response to a protest took place. Last Monday, shortly before President Trump began speaking from the White House Rose Garden, members of the U.S. Park Police and the National Guard began sweeping protesters out of Lafayette Square using tear gas, horses, batons, riot shields and explosive devices. The attack on the protesters was surprising in its ferocity, particularly given that the protest appeared to be vocal but peaceful and a city-mandated curfew was still 30 minutes away.
In short order, though, the effort made some ghoulish sense: Trump left the White House, proceeded across Lafayette Square and posed briefly for photographs outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The goal of the outing was to send a dual message: that Trump prioritized religion and that he wasn’t cowed by the protests. Reporting had revealed that Trump was moved to a secure bunker a few nights earlier; this was Trump’s way of reiterating his strength. It was a demonstration that required a clear path (and a reinforced protective bubble).
To hear the White House tell it, this narrative is wrong. It’s wrong to say that the square was cleared for Trump’s benefit, it’s wrong to describe the crowd as peaceful and, the most frequent complaint, it’s wrong to say that tear gas was used. Attorney General William P. Barr made each of these points on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, in fact.
But he did so clumsily and disingenuously, making it less likely that viewers would be convinced by his argument than motivated to be skeptical by the rhetoric.
The tear gas
Barr’s effort to reiterate the debunked claim that no tear gas was used yielded the most ridiculous sequence in the discussion.
Multiple reporters on the scene when the square was being cleared indicated that they and others around them were affected by some substance that stung their eyes or made them cough. The White House pool reporter, traveling across the square soon afterward with the president, reported that she and others were still affected by the lingering irritant.
In a statement last Tuesday, the Park Police denied that tear gas had been used, although they admitted that they had deployed “smoke canisters and pepper balls.”
Barr made the same claim Sunday.
“There was no tear gas used,” he said at one point.
“There were chemical irritants the park police has said — ” host Margaret Brennan replied.
“No, there were not chemical irritants. Pepper spray is not a chemical irritant,” Barr interjected. “It’s not chemical.” He later went back to his original point: “There was no gas.”
There are two ways in which Barr is trying to be clever with his phrasing in order to obscure the reality of what happened. He tries to differentiate between the compound he claims was used by the Park Police which wasn’t man-made, and products like chloroacetophenone and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile, which are. All of these are “chemicals,” of course, just as any constituted physical compound in our known universe is, like water or arsenic or air. Barr is trying to suggest that the difference in the composition of what was used somehow kicks it down to a lower tier of questionability — or removes it from contention as “tear gas.”
Oh, also: The Post’s fact-checking team reported on Monday that irritant that was deployed wasn’t actually organic in nature. So even by Barr’s odd standard, it was presumably “chemical.”
What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in an overview of “riot control agents,” identifies the effects experienced by reporters as side effects from tear gas, and even specifically states that pepper spray meets its definition of a riot control agent. A spokesman for the Park Police on Friday admitted that the organization’s denying the use of tear gas was a mistake — although the Park Police later stood by its original denial.
Barr seems to be basing his denial both on recategorizing pepper spray as somehow less bad than synthetic compounds (“chemicals”) and by noting that it’s technically not a gas, but a solid powder. But, then, neither are chloroacetophenone and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile. Tear gas isn’t a gas, it’s a fine particulate or mist (as the CDC describes). Again, Barr is trying to be cute with his language, offering a pedantic refutation of a common term like a fourth grader who has just learned that a tomato is not a vegetable.
The peaceful crowd
Barr’s effort to cast the assembly as violent was similarly overwrought.
At first, he focused on the turmoil that had, in fact, plagued the square the night before. Barr presented those events, including a contained fire at St. John’s Church, as spurring the need to expand the security cordon around the White House. The decision to move protesters out of the square was conveyed to the relevant authorities at 2 p.m. on Monday, he said.
“Here’s what the media is missing,” Barr said to Brennan on Sunday. “This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block.”
The problem with that framing is twofold.
First, it contradicts that same statement from the Park Police that serves as the backbone of the tear-gas defense. In that statement, the Park Police claim that protesters “began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids” at 6:33 p.m. This prompted the effort to clear the square to “curtail the violence that was underway.” There’s nothing about this being a planned operation.
What’s more, Barr himself made the claim to Brennan that the protesters were being violent at the time that the effort to remove them began.
“Three of my colleagues were there,” Brennan told him. “They did not see projectiles being thrown."
“I was there,” Barr replied. “They were thrown. I saw them thrown."
The timing of Barr’s visit is important, and we’ll get to it in a bit. But suffice it to say that video evidence from the period not only doesn’t back up the Park Police claim, it also doesn’t show Barr reacting to any such events.
Barr at one point tried to suggest that the crowd on Monday was violent because of the incidents that had occurred over the preceding days.
“All I heard was comments about how peaceful protesters were,” he said of the media coverage. “I didn't hear about the fact that there were 150 law enforcement officers injured and many taken to the hospital with concussions. So it wasn't a peaceful protest."
Those 150 law enforcement officers were hurt during violence over the prior weekend. Barr using that as a predicate for describing the Monday protest as violent is like arresting someone for reckless driving because two other cars had driven recklessly on the same road an hour before.
We can nonetheless accept that there was a decision made to expand the security perimeter around the White House following the events of Sunday without accepting that the decision to clear the square when it was cleared was not linked to Trump's trip to the church — perhaps the most important claim made by the administration.
We’ve been over the timeline in detail, but a brief recap is useful.
Shortly after 6 p.m., the White House announced that Trump would speak from the Rose Garden at 6:15. At that point, Lafayette Square was still filled with protesters, but Washington Post reporting suggests that the White House was already telling security officials about the plan to visit the church afterward.
At 6:08 p.m., Barr left the White House and went to the square. By 6:10, he could be seen in CNN's live shot of the area. He and his aides first spoke with a representative of the uniformed Secret Service and then waited for an apparent representative of the Park Police. Barr could be seen pointing north, in the general direction of the church. This was four minutes before Trump was supposed to speak; a man near Barr checked his watch.
At one point, after Barr pointed north again, the man who looks like a Park Police official dropped his head in exaggerated resignation. One of the men with Barr patted him on the back, as though consoling him. Barr and his aides left the way they came.
Sixteen minutes later, at 6:27 p.m., police moved toward the protesters. Six minutes after that, at 6:33, is when the Park Police say they began to disperse the crowd. Again, this is when the Park Police say that the crowd “began throwing projectiles” — more than 20 minutes after Barr had left.
At 6:43 p.m., Trump began speaking, wrapping up at 6:50 p.m. by declaring that he would be “going to pay [his] respects to a very, very special place.” At 7:01 p.m. Trump left the White House for the church.
Again, maybe it was the case that the perimeter was going to be extended. What we’re asked to believe, though, is that the effort to do so, the push to clear the square which began about 6:30, was entirely distinct from Trump’s 6:50 p.m. mention that he would be heading to the church — some 45 minutes after the White House began planning for that trip.
So the story Barr told is that Trump was planning to go to the church in the 6 p.m. hour, independent of whether the perimeter had been extended by clearing the square. After all, if the square was cleared to allow Trump passage, the clearing of the square was necessarily a function of Trump’s trip. Barr further argues that the extension was imminent — but also that the immediate predicate for removing the protesters was the violence of the crowd that he witnessed despite his leaving 20 minutes before the Park Police say it began.
Barr knows very well that the belief that Trump cleared the square using tear gas for a photo op is politically problematic. So he contests each of those assertions, however flimsily.
“You understand how these events appear connected?” Brennan said at one point. “The timing of this —”
Barr jumped in.
“Well, it’s the job of the media to tell the truth,” he replied. “They were not connected."
It is the job of the media to tell the truth. The truth is that Barr’s arguments about the events of last Monday collapse under scrutiny and that his flat assertion that there was no link between clearing the square and Trump’s photo op should be treated with the same skepticism that his claims about the use of tear gas earns.
It is also the job of government officials to tell the public the truth. In this case, it’s hard to believe that Barr is meeting that standard.
This article has been updated with details from the pepperball fact check.