Attorney General William Barr on Friday tried to distance himself from law enforcement’s violent confrontation and removal of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square earlier this week, saying he did not give the final order to clear the demonstration even as the White House has placed the decision on Barr’s shoulders amid ongoing fallout.
“They had the Park Police mounted unit ready, so it was just a matter of execution. So, I didn’t just say to them, ‘Go,’” Barr said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that,” he told the AP. “I was frustrated and I was also worried that as the crowd grew, it was going to be harder and harder to do. So my attitude was get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it.’”
The attorney general told the AP that a Park Police tactical commander gave the order for law enforcement to move in, but that he never spoke to that commander.
CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.
The comments mark the attorney general’s most clear attempt yet to pass responsibility for the widely condemned move by law enforcement agencies to clash with peaceful protesters, while still embracing the militarization in the nation’s capital.
The White House has attempted to deflect repeated criticism of the Monday evening events, where peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets about 30 minutes before a curfew was set to take effect, after which President Donald Trump participated in a photo opportunity with a Bible outside of the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters earlier in the week that Trump didn’t know about the plan to empty the streets and that Barr had made the decision to extend the security perimeter.
“The Attorney General decided that morning to expand the perimeter and that was a decision made long before the church discussion was ever in consideration. When the President gives an order, people act. It’s not as if he’s walked through each and every detail of how a plan goes about,” McEnany told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday.
Barr was seen surveying the crowd shortly before law enforcement acted.
The show of force on Monday stemmed from the administration watching a weekend of nationwide protests, some of which turned violent and destructive, in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, died last month while being restrained by a white officer’s knee as Floyd called out for more than eight minutes to be allowed to breathe.
CNN previously reported that Barr ordered authorities Monday evening to clear a crowd of protesters that had gathered near the White House, according to a Justice Department official, minutes ahead of Trump’s televised address from the Rose Garden.
Barr and other top officials from agencies responsible for securing the White House had previously planned to secure a wider perimeter around Lafayette Square, a federally owned green space just north of the building, in response to fires and destruction caused by protesters on Sunday night. That plan, developed earlier Monday, would have cleared the area later used for the President’s walk to the nearby church for a photo-op by 4 p.m. ET, the official said.
But when Barr arrived at Lafayette Square just after 6 p.m., in a scene that was captured on news cameras and elicited heckles from the large, peaceful crowd, the attorney general saw that the area had not been emptied, and told police to clear the area, the official said.
If federal law enforcement was met with resistance by the protesters, crowd control measures should be implemented, Barr had said, according to the official.
Barr had been told that police believed protesters were gathering rocks to throw at law enforcement, and while he was in the park, water bottles were thrown in his direction, the official said. CNN did not witness any water bottles being thrown at the attorney general. Camera footage shows him standing and watching the crowd for several minutes, flanked by a security detail and two senior department officials.
Just before 6:24 p.m., police broadcast their first warning for the crowd to distance. A CNN correspondent reporting from the rooftop of a nearby hotel heard three warnings broadcast over the next 10 minutes as authorities moved closer to the crowd.
At 6:35 p.m., authorities began charging the crowd in lockstep with their shields raised, some using their batons to strike the protesters as gas canisters were deployed.
Trump walked over to the church shortly after 7 p.m.
Barr defended use of force
On Thursday, Barr defended the use of force to clear the protesters, maintaining in his first public remarks on the Lafayette Square episode that his decision to disperse protesters followed signs that the crowd was “becoming increasingly unruly.” The removal, he said, had nothing to do with a photo-op staged by Trump minutes later.
“There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the President’s going over to the church,” Barr said.
Barr said in his news conference that officials had decided on Monday morning that they would expand a protective barrier around the White House north by one block to create “more of a buffer,” and at 2 p.m. that day, the attorney general said, he met with officials to set a tactical plan to move the perimeter.
“It was our hope to be able to do that relatively quickly before many demonstrators appeared that day. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty in getting appropriate forces – units – into place, by the time they were able to move a perimeter up to us there had been a large number of protesters had assembled,” Barr said.
The law enforcement action, Trump’s photo-op and the President’s response to protests across the country have been widely condemned at home and abroad, including from prominent former military leaders who once served under Trump.
CNN’s David Shortell and Evan Perez contributed to this report.