A group of former Justice Department (DOJ) employees are calling on the DOJ internal watchdog to launch an investigation into Attorney General William Barr’s role in the clearing of protesters at Lafayette Square near the White House.
Some 1,260 former prosecutors and department officials have penned an open letter on Wednesday to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz expressing concern over the Justice Department’s role in dispersing a group who were protesting for change in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Shortly after the area was cleared, President Donald Trump and several of his aides, including Barr, walked across the square to the church to pose for photos—a decision that had garnered some public backlash. Some media reported that the protesters were forcefully removed using tear gas and rubber bullets in order to make way for Trump’s visit to the church, but Barr has repeatedly denied that the two events had any correlation.
“While the full scope of the Attorney General’s role is not yet clear, he has admitted that he was present in front of the White House before law enforcement personnel took action to disperse the crowd. Department of Justice and White House personnel initially said that the Attorney General gave an order to law enforcement personnel to ‘get going’ or ‘get it done,’” the letter reads.
“Based on what we now know, these actions violated both the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and the press, and the right to assemble; and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable seizures, to include objectively unreasonable uses of force by law enforcement officers,” it added.
The letter also raised concerns over the deployment of federal law enforcement officers across the country in order to address the violent rioting, looting, and arson happening in several cities. They added their concerns are also related to the fact that some of the officers reportedly did not wear identifying insignia on their outfit.
“We have profound doubts that the personnel deployed from these agencies are adequately trained in policing mass protests or protecting the constitutional rights of individuals who are not subject to arrest or have not been convicted of a crime,” the group said.
“If the Attorney General or any other DOJ employee has directly participated in actions that have deprived Americans of their constitutional rights or that physically injured Americans lawfully exercising their rights, that would be misconduct of the utmost seriousness, the details of which must be shared with the American people,” it said.
During an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” on June 7, Barr addressed criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of protesters in Washington. He disputed claims that protesters at the White House were forcefully cleared from the area using tear gas and other means for the purpose of Trump’s church visit.
Barr said that the decision to clear the park was made before he knew that Trump was going to speak there, and that it was “not an operation to respond to that particular crowd.”
“It was an operation to move the perimeter one block,” the attorney general said.
Barr said the decision was made in response to violent riots in Lafayette Square over the previous few days.
“On Sunday [May 31], 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,” he said.
He said these incidents prompted the Park Police on May 31 to prepare a plan “to clear H Street and put … a larger perimeter around the White House so they could build a more permanent fence on Lafayette.” He added that he gave the green light to the plan at 2 p.m. the next day.
“Police have to move protesters, sometimes peaceful demonstrators, for a short distance in order to accomplish public safety. And that’s what was done here,” Barr said.
The letter also comes after Black Lives Matter D.C. and several protesters sued the Trump administration (pdf), alleging that the law enforcement personnel carried out orders that violated their free speech and other constitutional rights.