ACLU Wants Special Counsel to Probe Trump Photo Op at Church

President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John’s Church in Washington on June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Calling it possible that the clearing of protesters outside the White House last month was illegal, the ACLU urged Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday to appoint a special prosecutor.

The scene erupted on June 1, with U.S. Park Police and other law enforcement using tear gas, rubber bullets and batons to clear mostly peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, outside the White House, so that President Donald Trump could walk through to pose for photographs outside St. John’s Church.

Images of Trump holding a Bible outside the historic church, moments after chemical weapons were deployed mere yards away, has roiled the president’s critics.

There have been conflicting accounts of how officials formed the plan to clear the park where protesters had gathered as part of a nationwide response to the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. An internal watchdog for the Department of the Interior has taken up a review of the incident.

Denying that the square was cleared to make way for the president’s photo opportunity, the Trump administration has said the order was meant to tamp down on violence. But claims that the protesters were violent are at odds with with reports from journalists and others on the ground.

The ACLU has already filed a federal lawsuit with Black Lives Matter that says the clearing of protesters violated the First Amendment, but the 6-page letter sent Tuesday asks for the appointment of a special counsel to further probe the incident.

The group urges Barr to recuse himself from both the selection and supervision of the special counsel, citing conflicts of interest. Barr had been part of an entourage that accompanied Trump to the church for photos.

In the letter, the civil rights group says the decision to clear the park implicates constitutional claims as well as federal laws that bar “interference and conspiracies to interfere with any federally or constitutionally protected right.”  

“The American people deserve to know with certainty what happened that day, particularly who gave the order to use violent force to clear demonstrators and journalists who were exercising their constitutionally protected rights, under what authority and why, and they deserve to have any responsible officials who violated the law held accountable,” the letter states. “The appointment of an outside special counsel is a necessary step to ensure justice.”

The letter specifically cites a section of federal law that outlaws any conspiracy “to injure, oppress, threaten or intimidate any person… in the free exercise or enjoyment” of their constitutional rights.

Insisting that Barr’s involvement in the incident creates a conflict of interest in the probe of potential criminal acts, the group argues a special counsel is appropriate. Ongoing prosecutions of protesters under the Anti-Riot Act will also call into question any investigation conducted by people already within the Justice Department, the ACLU said.

The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on the ACLU’s letter.

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