WASHINGTON — When federal police officers violently cleared protesters from the city's Lafayette Square in June 2020, they did it so a contractor could install fencing — not to let President Donald Trump hold a photo opportunity at a nearby church, an investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general has found.
That finding, published Wednesday, is likely to surprise many critics of Trump, who have long asserted that the president or his attorney general ordered the operation to pave the way for an act of political theater. That is also the central allegation of a federal lawsuit by Black Lives Matter against the Justice Department.
The report found no evidence of that, but did find that Attorney General William Barr urged officials to speed up the clearing process once Trump had decided to walk through the area that evening.
The inspector general, Mark Greenblatt, identified problems with the clearing operation, including the likelihood that many protesters did not hear police warnings to disperse before the police moved in.
And he found that the firing of pepper balls by Bureau of Prisons officers was "inconsistent with the guidance" by the incident commander. Investigators couldn't determine why the Bureau of Prisons officers were there, but they arrived late and missed the operational briefing, the report says.
The report adds that the law enforcement agencies at the scene did not coordinate well, and that the U.S. Secret Service began advancing on protesters before the Park Police had a chance to warn them to disperse.
The report found that Washington, D.C., police, one of several law enforcement agencies on the scene, fired tear gas at protesters, and that the use of gas was a surprise to the Park Police, which was leading the operation.
But Greenblatt found that the Park Police had the authority to clear the park, and decided to do so — in consultation with Barr — hours before anyone knew Trump planned to make an appearance.
“We found that the Park Police made the decision to clear the park of protesters in order to install an anti-scale fencing to protect the park and U.S. Park Police officers during those protests,” Greenblatt told NBC News. “We did not find evidence that the Park Police officials made that decision in order to permit the president of the United States to visit the park, or for a photo op at the St. John's Church, across the street.”
In a letter accompanying the report's release, Greenblatt said, "The evidence established that relevant (Park Police) officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day."
Greenblatt also found that Barr's physical presence in the park had no impact on the decision to clear the park. Widely circulated video shows Barr entering Lafayette Square after 6 p.m. with his security detail and other White House staff members.
However, according to the IG report, the Park Police operations commander told investigators Barr asked him why the crowd was still on H Street and said he thought they would be gone by that point.
"Are these people still going to be here when POTUS comes out?" Barr is quoted as saying, using an acronym for President of the United States.
The commander said he not known until then that Trump would be coming out of the White House and into Lafayette Square.
He said he replied to the attorney general, "Are you freaking kidding me?"
The IG investigation took no position on whether the Park Police made a good decision by deciding to clear the park — only that the decision was lawful and consistent with policy.
The report says protests on May 30 and 31 "were mostly peaceful during the day," but that "acts of violence increased in the late afternoon and evenings," and that "officers reported that some protesters threw projectiles, such as bricks, rocks, caustic liquids, frozen water bottles, glass bottles, lit flares, rental scooters, and fireworks, at law enforcement officials."
A total of 49 Park Police officers were injured during the protests from May 29 to May 31, including one who underwent surgery, the report says.
Historic statues in Lafayette Square, were vandalized with graffiti, and on May 31, the park's comfort station was set on fire, the report says. A fire was also set in the basement at St. John's Church on May 31, and nearby stores and businesses were looted, the report adds.
On May 31, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered an 11 p .m. curfew, finding that "in the downtown area of the District of Colombia, numerous businesses and government buildings were vandalized, burned, or looted. Over the past nights, there has been a glorification of violence, particularly in the later hours of the night. ... The health, safety, and well-being of persons within the District of Colombia are threatened and endangered by the existence of these violent actions."
But the Park Police commander and the acting chief of police told investigators that the curfew was ineffective in stopping the unrest in Lafayette Square, the report says.
MSNBC correspondent Garrett Haake — who was on the scene as police began to clear the park — reported that the protests were largely peaceful until police moved in.
"It was by far the most peaceful day of protest that we've had in D.C. since Friday night," Haake reported.
"We had mounted federal police coming down H Street from east to west, clearing people out of the street. In front of them, they were using flash bangs, tear gas," Haake added. "All while I was listening to the president of the United States speak about law and order, I was watching people fall down as they ran, I was watching people get pushed aside by police forces."
CORRECTION (June 9, 2021, 3:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the day the inspector general's report came out. It was Wednesday, not Thursday.