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No attacks led to violent clearing of protesters for Trump’s bible photo op: officer

Click to play video 'George Floyd protests: Police disperse peaceful protest for Trump photo op outside church' George Floyd protests: Police disperse peaceful protest for Trump photo op outside church
June 1: George Floyd protests: Police disperse peaceful protest for Trump photo op outside church

The U.S. Park Police and Secret Service violently routed protesters from Lafayette Square last month without apparent provocation or adequate warning, immediately after Attorney General William Barr spoke with Park Police leaders, according to an Army National Guard officer who was there.

The account of National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco challenges the Trump administration’s explanation that vicious attacks by protesters led federal forces to turn on what appeared to be a largely peaceful crowd June 1 in the square in front of the White House. Law enforcement and security officers that night clubbed and punched protesters and unleashed mounted officers and chemical agents against them in one of the most controversial confrontations at the height of this year’s nationwide protests over the killing of Black people at the hands of police.

Read more: Top U.S. military officer says it was a ‘mistake’ to join Trump’s bible photo op

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The forceful clearing of Lafayette Square, long one of the nation’s most prominent venues for demonstrations, came minutes before President Donald Trump appeared in the area without notice, on his way to stage a photo event in front of a historic church nearby.

FILE – In this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John\’s Church across from the White House in Washington. When it comes to squelching protests in Democrat-run cities, Trump is eager to send in federal troops and agents — even when local leaders are begging him to butt out.
FILE – In this June 1, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John\’s Church across from the White House in Washington. When it comes to squelching protests in Democrat-run cities, Trump is eager to send in federal troops and agents — even when local leaders are begging him to butt out. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

DeMarco’s account was in prepared testimony for his appearance Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee, which is investigating the use of force — and who directed it — against crowds in the square that night. The National Guard officer is expected to invoke the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which in part says that no one can block a member of the armed forces from lawful communications with Congress.

Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, said Monday that from DeMarco’s written testimony, “it’s pretty obvious that at the highest levels the calls were being made,” although the testimony does not give any explicit details of anyone giving orders. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

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Click to play video 'Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says it was a ‘mistake’ to join Trump’s bible photo op' Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says it was a ‘mistake’ to join Trump’s bible photo op
Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says it was a ‘mistake’ to join Trump’s bible photo op

Acting Park Police Chief Gregory T. Monahan defended the law enforcement response in his prepared testimony. Repeating earlier statements, he said that in the days before the forceful clearing of Lafayette Square, protesters had hurled bricks, rocks and other items at officers, injuring at least 50 officers.

Monahan did not address whether protesters in Lafayette Square launched any attacks against law enforcement immediately before the action on June 1.

Read more: U.S. Park Police under fire for using violence against protesters

Videos and the accounts of journalists and protesters who were present that night depict the crowd as largely peaceful before the rout. Democratic lawmakers have challenged the administration to provide evidence of any crowd violence warranting the sudden use of brute force to drive out protesters.

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“On the whole, the United States Park Police acted with tremendous restraint in the face of severe violence from a large group of bad actors who caused 50 of my officers to seek medical attention,” Monahan writes. “Our actions as an agency on June 1 centred around public safety and the safety of my officers.

Click to play video 'George Floyd protests: U.S. attorney general Barr denies protesters were gassed' George Floyd protests: U.S. attorney general Barr denies protesters were gassed
George Floyd protests: U.S. attorney general Barr denies protesters were gassed

Monahan and the Trump administration also cite plans to build a fence to block protesters from the square as another factor leading authorities to clear the area.

The administration has previously denied that law enforcement and security forces cleared the square to make way for Trump’s appearance before news cameras. Trump thrust a Bible in the air in front of St. John’s Church in a show of authority against protesters, blamed for starting a small fire in a basement at the church on a previous day.

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President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John\’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Park of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night.
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John\’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Park of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

DeMarco says the rout started shortly after Barr and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared in the square, where Barr appeared to confer with Park Police leaders, he says.

“From what I could observe, the demonstrators were behaving peacefully,” when Park Police, the Secret Service and other, unidentified forces turned on the crowd, DeMarco wrote in his testimony.

Read more: ‘He tries to divide us’: What Mattis, Bush and Obama said after Trump’s crackdown

The legally required warnings to demonstrators before clearing the square shortly after were “barely audible” from his position 20 yards (18 metres) away, DeMarco said. Protesters were gathered still farther away, and gave no sign of hearing the warnings, he said.

Park Police and other officers then began suddenly routing the crowd without warning to National Guard forces present, DeMarco said.

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George Floyd death: Chuck Schumer calls Trump church photo-op ‘unconstitutional’

A Park Police liaison officer told DeMarco that his forces were only using “stage smoke,” not tear gas, against the crowd. DeMarco said the stinging to his nose and eyes appeared to be tear gas, however, and said he found spent tear gas canisters in the street later that evening.

The Park Police, a force of a few hundred officers nationwide, oversees a handful of the nation’s most iconic federal lands and monuments.

Grijalva said lawmakers had also asked for recordings of the law enforcement and security forces’ radio traffic that night. They were told by the administration that a “technological glitch” prevented the recordings, he said.

Click to play video 'George Floyd death: AG Barr defends Trump’s walk to church, clearing out of protesters near White House' George Floyd death: AG Barr defends Trump’s walk to church, clearing out of protesters near White House
George Floyd death: AG Barr defends Trump’s walk to church, clearing out of protesters near White House

DeMarco says he was the appointed liaison at the event for the Interior Department’s Park Police and the National Guard and was standing near a statue of Andrew Jackson, as Barr and other senior officials involved congregated.

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DeMarco describes a quick conversation with Milley, the Pentagon’s top general, at the time in the square that DeMarco says gave no warning of the imminent push by the Park Police, the Secret Service and others against demonstrators.

“As the senior National Guard officer on the scene at the time, I gave General Milley a quick briefing on our mission and the current situation,” DeMarco writes. “General Milley told me to ensure that National Guard personnel remained calm, adding that we were there to respect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.”

Read more: Religious leaders ‘outraged’ over Trump photo op at D.C. church amid George Floyd protests

Shortly after Park Police and others forced out fleeing protesters, Milley walked in military fatigues alongside Trump as the Republican president strolled to nearby St. John’s Church.

Milley subsequently apologized for taking part, after heavy public criticism. Milley said he “should not have been there” and his involvement “created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

DeMarco previously served in the U.S. Army, including a combat assignment in Iraq. A candidate matching his name and description ran for Congress for Maryland in 2018 and lost in the Democratic primary.