Several Democratic chairmen pressed the administration for witness testimony and documents from several government entities, from the Defense Department to the Secret Service to the Justice Department.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) described himself as “stunned, disturbed, and furious” after law enforcement forcibly cleared the streets Monday night moments before Trump took a walk across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Thompson demanded in a letter to Secret Service Director James M. Murray that he provide a briefing on his organization’s role in “planning, coordinating, and executing these actions.”
“It is shameful that the President used the power of the federal government to attack Americans exercising their constitutional right to protest just so he could stage a photo opportunity,” Thompson wrote.
Similarly, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee with jurisdiction over the nation’s capital, sent Murray a letter demanding documents related to Trump’s church visit and communications from employees who objected to “the targeting of peaceful protesters.”
“While the Secret Service is tasked with protecting the President of the United States, it is not a tool of fascism, and the conduct and operations of the Secret Service cannot be allowed to infringe upon the constitutional rights of the American people for the purposes of serving the President’s personal vanity,” Connolly wrote.
House Democrats have tried largely in vain since taking control in January 2019 to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, with the White House blocking requests for testimony and documents while ignoring subpoenas. It’s unclear whether Murray will comply.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) announced Tuesday he would be taking action against Attorney General William P. Barr for his refusal to testify over many months of requests. Barr sent Nadler a letter on Monday citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason he couldn’t commit to testifying this month.
Nadler noted that the attorney general found time Monday to visit the protests outside the White House “just minutes before riot police fired tear gas into the crowd.”
Since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis sparked high tensions there and in cities from Washington to Los Angeles, Barr has echoed Trump’s call for a more aggressive stance by law enforcement and it was he who ordered the area cleared so Trump could come outside and speak, The Washington Post reported.
“Mr. Barr has thoroughly corrupted the integrity of the criminal justice system, he has shown contempt for Congress, and the Committee has an obligation to hold him to account,” Nadler said.
In response, Nadler said he would introduce legislation to cut the budget of the attorney general’s personal office by $50 million and said the committee would hear testimony in the coming weeks for Justice Department whistleblowers and former officials.
“These individuals are prepared to describe specific incidents of misconduct, as well as the unprecedented politicization of the Department of Justice under President Trump and Attorney General Barr,” Nadler said.
Also Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he would call Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a congressional hearing as soon as next week.
Esper and Milley, Smith said, need to explain the military’s actions and preparations to keep peace in American cities.
“I have serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters,” Smith said in a statement. “The role of the U.S. military in domestic U.S. law enforcement is limited by law. It must not be used in violation of those limits and I see little evidence that President Trump understands this fundamental premise.”
Smith was critical of Esper’s decision to refer to the protests as a “battle space” during a White House call Monday with governors.
“Language like that is deeply concerning in terms of how the U.S. military is being used in law enforcement,” he said. “It could create major problems.”
He was less critical of Milley’s decision to join Trump in his stroll across Lafayette Square on Monday evening and later patrol downtown Washington streets Monday night in his combat uniform.
Smith said he took Milley at his word that he went out to ensure National Guard troops acted appropriately and did not impede peaceful protests.
“I think he may have misread slightly the optics of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff walking around in his uniform in the nation’s capital,” he said.
Smith saved his sharpest words for Trump and his “misguided rhetoric” that put the civic unrest in the context of a military battle.
“We need to bring peace back to the streets, but what is absent from the president’s approach is to address the legitimate concerns of peaceful protesters,” he said. “The only problem he sees are the criminal elements that have taken advantage of the situation.”
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this story.