In footage from that moment, you can see Barr speak to the commander, after which the commander’s head droops with seemingly intentional melodrama. From a report released Wednesday by the Interior Department inspector general, we learn what Barr asked.
“Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?”
“These people” were the protesters. And “POTUS,” of course, was the president of the United States, who, within an hour, emerged from the White House, strode through a square newly and contentiously cleared of demonstrators and posed for several photographs outside of a church.
Barr’s question was a valid, if not a pointed, one. The Secret Service had informed its liaison with the Park Police at 4:50 p.m. that Trump planned to leave the White House to “assess the damage” (in the words of the report) from vandalism that occurred during protests over the preceding days. At 6:04 p.m., the White House announced Trump would be speaking at 6:15. At 6:10, Barr came out to talk to Park Police.
The interaction was captured by CNN.
Barr and his aides wait for the commander, wearing a white shirt under a black vest, to arrive. When he does, there’s a brief conversation. Barr points toward the protesters. An aide with him, at left in sunglasses, checks his watch. Barr, talking, points again. The commander’s head sinks. Barr pats him on the back. The commander leaves, as does Barr.
So were those people going to be there when the president came out? Trump was supposed to start speaking at 6:15, four minutes after the encounter between Barr and the commander. Barr said more than one thing; did he also point out that time was running short? Is that why his aide looked at his watch?
We don’t know Barr’s side of the story because the inspector general’s report focused only on the conduct of the U.S. Park Police (USPP), the organization that falls within the Interior Department’s mandate. Many other agencies were on the scene that day, including Bureau of Prisons officers — airdropped in by the Justice Department in response to the ongoing protests — and the Secret Service. Most of the officers there were under Park Police direction (except the Secret Service) but the inspector general only “sought interviews and information from individuals outside of the USPP when doing so would provide us with information about the agency’s USPP’s activities. Accordingly, we did not seek to interview Attorney General William Barr, White House personnel, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, [D.C. Metropolitan Police (MPD)] personnel, or Secret Service personnel regarding their independent decisions that did not involve the USPP.”
Five minutes after Barr and the commander spoke, uniformed Secret Service officers briefly began pushing the crowd back. At 6:28 p.m., after several audio warnings to the crowd to disperse, Park Police began clearing the area from east to west; that is, starting from the side nearest the church where Trump would later appear for his photographs. At 6:43 p.m., nearly half an hour after scheduled, Trump begins speaking, even as the area is still being cleared.
“Thank you very much,” he said while concluding his speech at 6:50 p.m. “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.”
According to the report, this was also the moment at which Park Police confirmed having cleared the area.
The gist of the report is that this was essentially a coincidence.
The inspector general’s assessment does add new information to the established timeline that reinforces the Park Police’s assertions that the area was cleared to erect new fencing to better protect the White House complex. Its initial news release about the effort to clear the area cited this rationale largely in passing, focusing instead on the need to clear the area to “curtail the violence that was underway.” In the days that followed, though, it became the central motivating factor, including being cited by Barr in an interview with CBS News.
We now know, for example, that the plan to install fencing along the square was, in fact, ready to be initiated. There were three trucks with material already on scene by 5:30 p.m. At 5:50 p.m., the report indicates the incident commander for the Park Police “instructed the USPP Horse Mounted Patrol unit and the USPP and ACPD civil disturbance units to prepare for deployment onto H Street,” the street just north of the square and the northern boundary of the secure area. “At 6:04 p.m.,” the report continues, “the USPP incident commander drafted the dispersal warning on his mobile phone.”
Both of those preparations were made before Barr arrived at the scene. That’s compelling evidence for the argument that the area was going to be cleared despite Barr’s presence.
But other details continue to suggest that there was a sense of urgency driven by the White House. At 6:12 p.m., for example, immediately after the incident commander spoke with Barr, he talked to the assistant chief of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department..
“The MPD assistant chief of police told us he asked the USPP incident commander to delay the clearing operation until the Mayor’s 7 p.m. curfew when the MPD believed it would have clear authority to arrest protesters who failed to comply with the curfew,” the report states. “... According to both the USPP incident commander and the MPD assistant chief of police, the USPP incident commander responded that the USPP would not wait for the curfew and would begin the operation shortly.”
The incident commander mentioned that Barr was at the scene but, the assistant chief said, the commander “did not suggest that the USPP had to clear the park for a potential Presidential movement, stating that ‘he didn’t say that the President was a reason that they [the USPP] were doing anything.’ ”
The other question is why the Secret Service began pushing back the crowd when it did.
The Park Police incident commander told inspectors that he’d been told by his colleague with the Secret Service (with whom he shared control of security) that “the President’s visit would likely occur later that day or in the evening, after protesters had been removed from the area.” That update is apparently the one that occurred just before 5 p.m. Park Police officials nonetheless told the inspector general that their timeline for the day never changed.
Again, at 6:16 p.m. — one minute after Trump was initially supposed to start speaking — the Secret Service began its independent effort to clear the area. It encountered strong resistance, prompting it to first deploy pepper spray and then to fall back.
Several Park Police officials told inspectors “the Secret Service lieutenant later apologized for the early entry onto H Street during the operation but did not explain why it occurred.” Each also indicated they had no reason to think it was related to Barr’s visit. Again, no Secret Service personnel were interviewed for this report on the actions of the Park Police.
There is an interesting redaction in the section of the report that focuses on when the Park Police learned about the president’s plan. It suggests “an official” made a request that was rejected. Instead, an acting deputy chief “reiterated to the official the USPP’s operational plan and stated the clearing operation would begin once all law enforcement officers under the command of the USPP were in place.”
Again we come back to Barr's question. At 6:11 p.m., after the White House has informed Park Police that Trump would be on-scene once the protesters were cleared and after the White House has announced the speech that preceded that visit, Barr steps out of the White House where he speaks with the incident commander.
“Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?”
There are three possible answers to that question.
The first was “yes,” which was obviously not feasible. There was no chance that the Secret Service would bring the president out into an angry mob of people. There is similarly no chance that Barr thought that was a feasible response.
In other words, this was not a question. It was, at least, a nudge. While there are repeated references within the report to the fact that the Park Police do not report to Barr, it’s obviously the case that any pressure from the attorney general would not be insignificant.
So then we're left with the other two possible answers. One is “no, if Trump waits until the park is cleared before coming out.” The other is “no, because we'll clear the park now so that he can come out.”
It’s this distinction that is now the crux of the issue. There was a curfew coming into effect at 7 p.m. for which the Park Police chose not to wait. It chose to clear the area right at the moment that the White House was making preparations for Trump to come out. It is, in fact, possible that this was a coincidence that worked out for the president; that the Park Police were just about to push the protesters back and Trump just had to kick out his speech by half an hour.
But that brings us to a Washington Post report from June 2, the day after the incident. Post reporters did speak with a Justice Department official who offered a different assessment of Barr’s role the prior day.
“When Barr went to survey the scene, he was ‘surprised’ to find the perimeter had not been extended and huddled with law enforcement officials, the Justice Department official said,” according to our report. The official added that Barr “conferred with them to check on the status and basically said: ‘This needs to be done. Get it done.’ ”
It got done.