FILE - In this April 1, 2020, file photo, Attorney General William Barr speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. U.S. officials are vowing to "maximize federal law enforcement presence" in the nation's capital after days of violent demonstrations. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Barr defends law enforcement's force in removal of peaceful protesters in DC
03:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Attorney General Bill Barr during an interview Sunday again defended the actions of federal law enforcement officers who forcefully cleared peaceful protesters in Washington on Monday, but he offered different reasons as to why force was used.

Barr, in his interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said the protesters were moved because the Park Police wanted a larger security perimeter around the White House – not to aid the White House in staging President Donald Trump’s subsequent photo opportunity with a Bible at the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.

The clearing, though, ultimately devolved into a discordant and violent spectacle, with federal law enforcement agents clashing with protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets about 30 minutes before a curfew was set to take effect in the nation’s capital. Barr was seen surveying the crowd shortly before law enforcement acted.

Barr, who has sought to distance himself from the official order to clear the protesters, also claimed on Sunday that the protesters at Lafayette Square, which had become the center of attention for the ongoing demonstrations, were violent. There is no evidence of that claim, and CNN personnel on the scene reported the protesters were peaceful.

“They were not peaceful protesters. And that’s one of the big lies that the media is – seems to be perpetuating at this point,” Barr claimed Sunday. “The Park Police was facing what they considered to be a very rowdy and non-compliant crowd. And there were projectiles being hurled at the police.”

As CNN has previously reported, Barr appeared in Lafayette Square shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, about an hour before Trump left the White House. In a scene that was captured on news cameras, Barr stood flanked by a security detail, his chief of staff and the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. As Barr surveyed the situation around the park, some protesters spotted and recognized him, and shouts went up.

A Justice Department official previously told CNN that 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. CNN did not witness any water bottles being thrown at the attorney general.

As reporters were scrambled to the Rose Garden to set up for a speech by the President, loud bangs began on the other side of the White House fence.

Three warnings

Barr said Sunday that three warnings were given Monday night before federal authorities moved in aggressively, some using tear gas, to empty the area near the square ahead of the President’s walk. Some people on the ground did not hear warnings.

Barr traced the decision to widen the security perimeter back to that weekend’s protests, some of which turned violent and destructive, in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, OK, there were violent riots in – at Lafayette Park where the Park Police were under constant attack at the – behind their bike rack fences,” Barr said. “On Sunday, things reached a crescendo. The officers were pummeled with bricks. Crowbars were used to pry up the pavers at the park and they were hurled at police. There were fires set in not only St. John’s Church, but a historic building at Lafayette was burned down.”

While CNN personnel saw some protesters tussling with law enforcement at times near the park over the weekend, there was not widespread violence in the boundaries of the park. During the weekend in various parts of the city, including the area not far from the park, there were was some destruction, including several store fronts being defaced, windows broken, at least two fires and dozens of law enforcement officers were injured.

On Sunday evening, law enforcement did push back on the protesters who were at the park entrance – some even using batons and some pepper spray. Elsewhere in the city there were cases of looting.

During a press briefing Sunday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said, “It got very violent in the park in particular. When I was talking to the chief of police and other law enforcement officers, it was the most violent they have seen it in this city.”

And Maj. General William Walker, the commanding general of the DC National Guard, told reporters Sunday that people “were armed with cylinder blocks. I have a soldier that had a concussion. There were bags of bricks.” He said on Monday some protesters had water bottles and eggs.

US Park Police determined on Sunday night that authorities would need to put a larger perimeter around the White House, Barr said, adding that he gave the order for that to happen on Monday morning. When he gave that order, Barr said Sunday, he didn’t know Trump would later be speaking.

Police agencies, he said, were informed of the need to move protesters away from the White House to make room for the new perimeter at 2 p.m. that day.

As for the delay in moving the protesters – which did not occur until more than four hours after Barr said law enforcement were asked to do so, and not until moments before Trump’s emergence – Barr said: “The effort was to move the perimeter one block, and it had to be done when we had enough people in place to achieve that.”

“This was not an operation to respond to that particular crowd. It was an operation to move the perimeter one block,” Barr said, despite suggesting earlier that the force was used because the crowd was violent.

This story has been updated with additional comments from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and the DC National Guard’s Maj. General William Walker.

CNN’s Adrienne Winston contributed to this report.