Covering a White House fortified for a war zone

Behind the scenes: The White House has become a fortress inside a fortress following the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, a reporter finds.
Image: White House protest
A person holds on to a fence in front of a line of police in Lafayette Square as demonstrators gather to protest near the White House on June 2, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP

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By Shannon Pettypiece

WASHINGTON — For the past three years, I’ve covered a culture war from inside the White House. Last week, it felt more like I was covering an actual war.

The White House has become a fortress inside a fortress following the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd. Entering feels like going into a Green Zone in the nation’s capital, with block after block of tall, black reinforced fencing erected in recent days.

There are tan military vehicles rolling past the Pennsylvania Avenue Starbucks and camo-clad troops patrolling the corner where tourists used to buy red, white and blue USA sweatshirts.

Lafayette Square, across from the White House — normally full of selfie-taking tourists, older men playing chess and a handful of often-eccentric protesters — is now behind the steel fence perimeter and filled with National Guard troops and armed Secret Service agents. Protesters have been pushed back so far they can no longer be seen and are barely heard from the People’s House.

Covering this White House, I’ve witnessed countless moments, big and small, that I could have never anticipated. Last week provided more than its fair share.

It started Monday evening as I watched military-style vehicles packed with D.C. National Guard troops roll into the White House campus. About an hour later, the president was speaking in the Rose Garden, threatening to send the military into U.S. cities to calm unrest.

"We are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now," he said.

As he spoke, the sound of explosions from flash-bang grenades used by law enforcement to clear the park reverberated across the White House grounds. One blast was so strong I could feel it rattle my chest. Between booms, there was the drone of a police helicopter overhead and sirens. These were the sounds I would have expected to hear from the White House if the country were under attack by a foreign invader.

Then there was eerie silence.

Police in riot gear stand in front of the White House on June 2, 2020.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Moments later, I watched from our camera position on the White House North Lawn as Trump emerged from the front door of the White House, something presidents rarely do. With the smell of the dispersants used to the clear protesters still hanging in the air, he walked out of the White House gates flanked by his top aides and Secret Service agents and headed across the fortified park for the church visit that would come to symbolize one of the biggest controversies of his presidency.

That night as I drove home, the streets and sidewalks around the White House were nearly deserted. One street I tried to turn down was blocked off by a row of law enforcement officers lined shoulder to shoulder in riot gear. While driving down another street, at least a dozen police cars zoomed past me, sirens blaring, heading the wrong way down the one-way street.

The next morning, as I entered the White House grounds, I passed dozens of U.S. Secret Service shields drying in the sun after being hosed off.

As the protests outside the White House grew over the week, so did the security process at the White House, despite fewer reports of violence. Large groups of Secret Service agents in riot gear gathered on the White House grounds as the days passed, and on Thursday, crews were erecting a new layer of fencing outside the White House as I entered at 5:30 a.m.

The US National flag above a darkened White House past tear gas smoke as protesters and police clash on May 30, 2020.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

But by Friday afternoon, while soldiers in camouflage fatigues continued to patrol the area on the other side of the tall, black fence, the sounds were much different. The booms of the flash-bangs had been replaced with the bass of rock music playing from the other side of the park, where the protests had taken on a street-fair atmosphere.

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And the president, who started the week talking about sending the military into American cities, ended it back on the campaign trail in Maine, talking about lobsters and scallops and visiting a nasal swab plant.

"Next year will be the greatest year, I think, economically speaking, in the history of our country," he told a group of fishermen.