Since June 1 last year, it has been accepted as an article of faith that then-President Donald Trump ordered a group of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters to be cleared from Lafayette Square across from the White House using tear gas and rubber bullets so he could cross the street for a photo-op at a nearby church.
If liberals disapprove of the misinformation bubble that has allowed falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election to fester, they must recognize the role stories like this have played.
Then-California Sen. Kamala Harris, now the vice president, said the next day that she “watched as President Trump, having gassed peaceful protesters just so he could do this photo op, then he went on to tear gas priests who were helping protesters in Lafayette Park.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked, “What is this, a banana republic?” George Stephanopoulos, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton now with ABC News, asserted that “the administration asked police to clear peaceful protesters from the park across the White House so that the president could stage a photo op.”
There is only one problem with this narrative, which received wall-to-wall coverage on outrage-addled cable news shows and was pasted on the front pages of newspapers across the country: An independent investigation by the inspector general of the Interior Department has concluded it wasn’t true.
Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt wrote that “the evidence did not support a finding that the [United States Park Police] cleared the park on June 1, 2020, so that then President Trump could enter the park.” The protesters were instead removed “to allow a contractor to safely install anti-scale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occured on May 30 and May 31” during other Black Lives Matter protests.
In fact, Greenblatt found, the relevant decisions were made and plans put in place “several hours before [officials] knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day.”
Greenblatt did find fault with Bureau of Prisons officers for firing pepper balls to subdue the protesters, saying it was “inconsistent with the guidance” of those overseeing the operation. The report was agnostic on the merits of clearing the park itself, however, merely finding that it violated neither the law nor standing policy.
There’s no doubt that in June 2020 Trump was trying to use the civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police to win re-election on a “law and order” platform. During the photo op after the park clearing, Trump famously held aloft a Bible while posing outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged during the protests on the night of May 31, clearly trying to milk the scene for full political effect.So the connection between the clearing of Black Lives Matter protesters and Trump’s visit to the church was plausible — but liberals who jumped to conclusions based on these suspicions turned out to be wrong.
The question is what will happen next. The inspector general report to date has received only a fraction of the media coverage that greeted the original story. Will there be any mea culpas or introspection? Or will this be dismissed as a cover-up by a Trump appointee? (Greenblatt was nominated by Trump to his current post and confirmed by the Senate in 2019, though he has served in comparable positions under presidents of both parties since 2003.)
Left-wing Twitter is already seizing on the fact that the report did find that then-Attorney General William Barr asked if the park would be fully cleared out by the time Trump planned to walk out of the White House. But that same section said that Barr’s question was also the first time the park police commander in charge — hours into the operation — learned that Trump would be going to the park.
Some of this refusal to accept a more complicated set of facts than cartoon villainy on the part of the Trump administration is simply partisanship, and conservatives are certainly not immune from cherry-picking which facts are too good to check. But liberals cannot claim to be for truth only when they are calling out Trump’s lies. Refusing to acknowledge error in the face of new evidence further debases the truth they purport to hold dear.
Liberals can at least argue that they erred based on the reporting of credible news organizations, which overwhelmingly ran with the story that the park was cleared for a Trump photo-op. But this defense actually compounds the problem: That this was so widely misreported by avowedly nonpartisan publications, which in many cases have high editorial standards, sows distrust in the media and our institutions. It is by now a cliché to say “This is how we got Trump,” but that’s only because this distrust was surely a factor.
The eagerness of much of the media to amplify stories that reflect negatively on Trump has made nearly half the country more skeptical of such reporting. And it is indeed stories. This latest incident is no exception — just last week a similar failure was revealed in the reporting on the possibility that Covid-19 may have originated in a Chinese laboratory.
That theory was widely described as “debunked” by the mainstream media, which viewed it through the prism of Trump’s anti-Asian rhetoric about China and the virus. More recent reporting suggests that the Wuhan lab theory is more of an open question, one that American scientists and journalists were perhaps too quick to dismiss.
The eagerness of much of the media to amplify stories that reflect negatively on Trump has made nearly half the country more skeptical of such reporting.
From Wuhan to Lafayette Square, Republican-leaning readers and viewers cannot help but notice that cases the media and the left prematurely declare closed have in the Trump era tended to run in one direction only.
The conservative response has not been confined to prudent skepticism about the media in general, of course. It has also bred credulity about alternative news sources with lower standards that make favorable and, in the worst cases, fraudulent claims about Trump. If liberals disapprove of the misinformation bubble that has allowed falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election to fester, they must recognize the role stories like this have played in creating the market for it — and avoid creating a misinformation bubble of their own.