WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr on Thursday defended the decision to forcibly remove protesters from Lafayette Square this week, downplaying the use of force and claiming that the administration's decision was provoked by increasing violence.
"I think the president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street to the church of presidents," Barr said at a virtual news conference, referring to St. John's Episcopal Church. "I don't necessarily view that as a political act. I think it was entirely appropriate for him to do."
Barr claimed that protesters outside the White House on Monday were becoming violent, justifying his authorization for police to remove them.
"I saw the projectiles on Monday when I went to Lafayette Park to look at the situation," said Barr, who was seen in the park before protesters were forced out.
Reporters and protesters outside the White House on Monday said that although some protesters had thrown water bottles and bricks across the barrier separating them from the police earlier, the protests that day were entirely peaceful.
"On Monday, we were still facing very large demonstrations that were belligerent and throwing projectiles," Barr said, adding that "it's very important to use sufficient forces, law enforcement, to establish law and order in a city when you have riots running. If you use insufficient resources, it's dangerous for everybody."
Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country
Barr said some people in the crowd used crowbars to pry paving stones from the street to throw at members of the Secret Service and other federal agents. From Saturday until Thursday, he said, 114 law enforcement personnel were injured around the White House and 22 required hospitalization.
The Trump administration has been fiercely criticized for using rubber bullets, smoke bombs and pepper balls to clear out peaceful protesters from the area surrounding Lafayette Square on Monday evening so President Donald Trump could walk across the street to take a photo in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday compared Trump's protest response to Nazi tactics and accused the president of abusing his authority. Thursday, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, praised Mattis for his blistering criticism of the president.
Even some administration officials have backed away from Trump's actions.
"The protectors can quickly become the oppressors, particularly for people of color," FBI Director Christopher Wray said during the news conference Thursday. "Civil rights and civil liberties are at the heart of who we are as Americans."
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Defense Secretary Mark Esper briefly broke from Trump and told NBC News in an exclusive interview Tuesday night that he did not support using the military to quell protests triggered by the death of George Floyd. He later reversed his stance after attending a meeting at the White House on Wednesday.
Barr also doubled down on the Trump administration's insistence that "antifa," shorthand for anti-fascists, was responsible for inciting violence at protests across the country Thursday, but he made no specific mention of members of a far-right extremist group who were charged with conspiracy to cause destruction.
Asked by reporters why he mentioned antifa but not "Boogaloo," the far-right group, in his prepared remarks, Barr said he was dealing with "a witches' brew of a lot of different extremist organizations."
"I specifically said in addition to antifa and other extremist groups like antifa, there were a variety of groups and people of a variety of ideological persuasions. So I did make that point," Barr said. "There's a lot of disinformation out there, people posing as different members of the different groups. You sometimes have to dig a little deeper to determine exactly what's going on."
Barr also said "foreign actors" were trying to take advantage of the protests and were "playing all sides to exacerbate the violence."
Barr acknowledged that "many African Americans lack confidence in our American criminal justice system," and he said he was working with local law enforcement officers and community leaders to "find constructive solutions so that Mr. Floyd's death will not have been in vain."