Top defense officials and members of local law enforcement are casting doubt on official statements made by the White House defending a decision for the U.S. Park Police to remove protesters from Lafayette Park prior to the president's walk to St. John's Episcopal Church.
In interviews with The Washington Post, numerous named and unnamed officials contended that a decision to move a police perimeter by one block, which resulted in law enforcement deploying tear gas and physically chasing protesters from the park, was not made long in advance, as the White House previously contended.
Washington, D.C., Police Chief Peter Newsham told the Post that his agency only learned of the decision to clear protesters from the park "minutes" before the confrontation occurred and publicly questioned the legality of the operation.
U.S. Park Police led the operation.
“We heard that there was going to be an unscheduled presidential movement,” Newsham said. “Just a few minutes later, our teams on the ground learned [chemical] munitions were going to be used. The munitions were deployed minutes later.”
“I think we need a thorough investigation about what occurred there. Why was the crowd cleared? Who did it? Was it legal? We need to answer these questions,” Newsham continued. “I think we need to get all the details to see if this was lawful.”
The head of the U.S. National Guard, Gen. Joseph Lengyel, added that he "never" heard plans that National Guard service members would be used to remove protesters from the park, adding that he was shocked to see the images on TV.
“I never heard any plan, ever, that police or National Guard were going to push people out of Lafayette Square,” said the general.
Gregory Monahan, acting chief of the Park Police, told the Post that the perimeter move was based on specific violence by protesters but did not elaborate.
Newsham also reportedly refused to confirm a claim by Attorney General William BarrBill BarrHolding defiant Trump witnesses to account, Jan. 6 committee carries out Congress's constitutional role Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official Appeals court questions Biden DOJ stance on Trump obstruction memo MORE, made during a CBS interview, that a decision had been finalized to move the perimeter at a planning meeting attended by Newsham around 2 p.m. on June 1, the day of the confrontation.
“We knew that they were considering the perimeter expansion, but there was no indication if or when it would happen,” added a D.C. police spokesman.
Another unnamed senior administration official added that the decision to clear protesters was made just "minutes" before Trump's 6:15 p.m. address on the protests.
One White House official contended to the Post, however, that the president and his staff had been under the impression that the perimeter was already set to be pushed back by one block. The White House did not respond to requests for comment from the Post or The Hill.
“Of course it was going to have to be pushed back for him to go,” the official said. “It’s not like the president of the United States is going to walk through a crowd like that. But we believed it was going to be pushed back either way.”
Protests have rocked D.C. and other cities around the country for weeks over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black Americans killed during encounters with police. Video of Floyd's killing sparked furious protests, as it showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while he pleaded for medical attention.