Usually, it’s President Trump ripping the lid off it. This time, it was Attorney General William P. Barr.
Barr sat for a lengthy interview Monday night with Fox News’s Bret Baier, during which he very notably contradicted the White House’s claim that Trump did not retreat to the White House bunker in the face of protests recently.
The confirmation was merely the latest example of the White House’s dodgy and false narratives colliding with one another.
Reports of Trump’s bunker retreat surfaced last week, when the New York Times reported and others including The Washington Post confirmed that Trump had retreated to it on the night of May 29 during particularly heated confrontations on the streets of Washington, D.C. This is a narrative that Trump didn’t like — for obvious reasons — and he quickly set out to deny it.
Trump at first suggested he had not gone to the bunker, but then confirmed he did — but only for an “inspection.”
“Well, it was a false report. I wasn’t [there]," he said. He then added: “I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day.”
The denial was particularly notable given that White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had been asked about the reporting at a White House briefing and had not called it into question.
And now Barr has effectively confirmed the reporting.
“You know, on [June 1], we were reacting to three days of extremely violent demonstrations,” Barr told Baier, referring to the day federal police cleared Lafayette Square so Trump could stage a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. “Right across from the White House, a lot of injuries to police officers, arson.... The things were so bad the Secret Service recommended the president go down to the bunker. We can’t have that in our country.”
It will be interesting to see whether we get a correction from Barr. Perhaps he will say he was just uncritically passing along what had been reported. Or maybe he will say he wasn’t confirming that Trump actually went to the bunker (although that would be a very remarkable coincidence). But it’s very difficult to square his comments with Trump’s claim that this happened during the day — when Trump said there was “no problem” — and that it was for an inspection — given that Barr said it was a Secret Service request.
Barr’s flub emanates from two very contradictory and suspect narratives that the White House is peddling. On the one hand, Trump is suggesting that he was not actually retreating in the face of unrest; on the other hand the White House has tried to argue that the scenes in Washington were so bad that they necessitated the violent advance on the protesters on the evening of June 1 that just so happened to precede Trump’s visit to the vandalized church for the photo op.
Barr played a significant role in the latter, having visited Lafayette Square in the moments before the protesters were pushed out and ordered the advance. Accounts of the scene suggested it was overwhelmingly peaceful — and an extensive Washington Post reconstruction of the scene released around the time of Barr’s interview Monday bears that out.
Despite this, Barr and the White House have clung to the idea that the crackdown was necessary — as is the extensive security perimeter that has been set up outside the square in the days since. To the extent the protests were indeed peaceful, that casts these measures as overzealous. And what better way to reinforce how ugly these scenes were than to note that the Secret Service told the president he needed to retreat to a bunker for his own safety.
Barr wants to defend his role in clearing the protesters, and so he has understandably erred on the side of playing up the supposed dangers that existed just outside the White House. Unfortunately for him, in doing so, he contradicted something the president himself had claimed about the scene.
Now he is in the position of either correcting himself — despite sources continuing to confirm that Trump had indeed retreated to the bunker that evening because of the unrest — or leaving it out there as having confirmed a scene that cuts to the core of Trump’s attempts to portray himself as an impervious and tough president in the face of violent protesters.