The head of U.S. Park Police insisted Tuesday that the forceful routing of protesters from the square in front of the White House last month had “zero correlation” with President Donald Trump's staged photo event minutes later. But he was unable to point to any immediate threat that justified his officers' sudden, violent drive against the hundreds gathered there.
Gregory T. Monahan's testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee was his first extended accounting of the Park Police's offensive against protesters and journalists June 1 in Lafayette Square.
Attorney General William Barr, testifying separately on Trump’s deployment of hundreds of federal officers and agents against nationwide protests this spring and summer, also distanced Trump’s photo event from the decision to drive demonstrators from Lafayette Square that night. “This was something conceived of long before and didn’t turn on the nature of the crowd,” Barr said.
But appearing at the same hearing as Monahan, Maj. Adam DeMarco of the Army National Guard told lawmakers of his surprise when Park Police officers suddenly and rapidly mobilized to drive the hundreds of then-peaceful demonstrators from the square, clubbing people with their shields and batons and unleashing chemical irritants.
It appeared “an unnecessary escalation of the use of force," DeMarco said. He said it ran counter to his training on military guidelines on the use of force against civilians and his experience with managing crowds as a combat veteran in Iraq.
The June 1 demonstrations outside the White House came at the height of this year’s nationwide protests over the killing of Black people at the hands of police, and has been a flashpoint in growing debate over Trump’s ongoing use of heavily militarized federal forces against the street protests. Hundreds of federal agency employees are now mobilized against a mix of peaceful and unruly protesters in Portland, Oregon.
Democrats charged that the action at Lafayette Square, long one of the nation’s most prominent venues for demonstrations, was a “test run” for the ongoing deployment of uniformed federal agency forces against protesters nationally.
DeMarco disputed Monahan's testimony that Park Police warned the crowd in advance over special sound equipment audible for hundreds of feet. He said the only notice to the milling crowds came in garbled words over an officer's hand-held megaphone that he could barely hear standing about 20 yards (18 meters) away. “I could just make out every other word," he said.
The events in Lafayette Square played out in just over an hour -- between about 6 p.m. and 7:05 p.m., according to testimony — and were watched closely by Americans on news and cellphone videos.
Barr, accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid an unannounced visit to the square within that hour and was recorded consulting with a senior Park Police officer at the scene. Park Police suddenly started moving against protesters shortly after Barr and Milley departed. The officers clubbed protesters with their batons and their riot shields and fired pepper balls, a chemical irritant, as demonstrators stumbled or ran away, some with their hands up.
DeMarco and others have said they believed the Park Police also fired tear gas. Monahan denies that.
About a half-hour later, Trump moved through the area on his way to a church that had been attacked by demonstrators a previous night. Standing briefly before news cameras as he held a Bible in the air, he then returned to the White House complex.
“We did not clear that park for a photo op,” Monahan said under questioning. “There is 100%, zero correlation between our operation and the president’s visit.”
Monahan also denied that either the White House, Barr or Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who oversees the Park Police, gave the order to drive protesters and news crews from Lafayette Square, by the surprise use of force.
Testifying separately before the House Judiciary Committee at the same time Tuesday, Barr faced Democratic lawmakers' questions about the aggressive federal response to protesters nationally, including that evening in Lafayette Square.
Barr has said the plan to move the protesters from Lafayette Square was solidified during an afternoon meeting with multiple agencies and was supposed to be put in place by early afternoon on June 1.
“I wanted it moved before there was a big buildup of demonstrators,” Barr testified Tuesday.
Officials had to wait for additional law enforcement and National Guard personnel to come in to provide support before the perimeter could be moved, Barr said. After those officials were all in place, they moved forward with pushing out the perimeter, he said.
Democrats at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing focused on what Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California called the “amazing coincidence” of federal forces clearing the square just before Trump moved through, and on the sudden use of violent against the crowd.
Monahan, the Park Police acting chief, cited protesters' throwing of bricks, rocks and other projectiles in the days before June 1. But Monahan disclosed that the only injury to Park Police that day came as phalanxes of officers were driving out the protesters, and someone punched an officer in the face.
“Your decision process should have been based by what was” happening in the square at the time, said Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine.
“No one was injured, by the way, until you all advanced," Gallego told Monahan. "If I had acted that way when I was in the Marine Corps, I probably would have been busted down a couple of” ranks.
Rep. Jody Hice, a Georgia Republican, called the committee’s probe of the clearing of the square “an act of political theater” by Democrats. The contention “that somehow the U.S. Park Police attacked peaceful protesters is ludicrous,” Hice said.
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.