Officials Who Broke Up Lafayette Square Protest Fight for Immunity

Protesters want accountability after authorities ended their peaceful demonstration with violence last year to make way for a Donald Trump photo op. In court Friday, the government insisted that the then-president’s protection justified the use of force. 

Tear gas billows May 31, 2020, near the White House as demonstrators gather in Lafayette Park to protest the death of George Floyd.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CN) — One year after the murder of George Floyd sharpened demands in America for police reforms, a Trump-appointed judge held arguments this afternoon on one of the early protests that brought the issue into somewhat improbable relief.

Floyd had been dead a week and the nation engulfed in anguish last year when a gaggle of officials departed the White House and marched across Lafayette Square to the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. Surrounded by some of his offspring and members of his Cabinet, President Donald Trump posed solemnly with a Bible and then departed.

One hour earlier, the scene had been a different one. At a hearing in federal court Friday afternoon, attorney Randy Mastro displayed videos and photo of the melee that preceded Trump’s appearance as authorities used chemical weapons and other means to clear the park for Trump.

“Tragically and ironically, the murder of George Floyd led to this peaceful protest,” explained Mastro, an attorney with Gibson Dunn whose reputation as a rhetorical pugilist precedes him. “At 6:08 Attorney General Barr shows up to survey the scene and then gives the order to clear the park. At 6:35 law enforcement advanced on peaceful protesters, using their batons and shield-like weapons to literally club those in their path.” 

Mastro represents protesters from the park who brought four different lawsuits over their dispersal. U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich convened Friday’s hearing to consider 15 motions to dismiss. 

“Presidential security is a paramount government interest that weighs heavily in the Fourth Amendment balance,” Department of Justice attorney John Martin told the court. “No officer has ever been denied qualified immunity for clearing an area … to protect the president.” 

Judge Friedrich appeared skeptical, however, about the argument.

“These protesters were just sitting here peacefully — there was no warning whatsoever — and then some of the defendants assaulted them with batons and rubber bullets,” Friedrich replied. “Doesn’t that make this case different?”

Martin replied that there is no evidence that the individual Park Police officers he represents deployed chemical weapons or rubber bullets. 

Representing Bill Barr, Justice Department lawyer David Cutler told Friedrich that the former attorney general can’t be held liable for securing a safety perimeter around Trump. 

“The basic interest in the president’s protection is overwhelming,” Cutler said. “Any large unscreened crowd in close range to the president poses an inherent safety threat.”

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House on June 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Mastro meanwhile warned Friedrich not to accept such post hoc justifications.

“Now we hear the defendants say, ‘Oh, this was about security,’” Mastro said. “Yet no defendant ever suggested at the time that the president was ever in any danger from peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park.

“Defendants said what a unique and unusual situation this was,” Mastro continued. “Well, your honor, I respectfully suggest that the thing unique and unusual about this situation was the audacity of the force used.”

What’s more, the clearing came before the 7 p.m. curfew instituted on the district by Mayor Muriel Bowser. 

“How do I get over the clear security concerns of the president’s safety?” Friedrich asked Scott Michelman, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Black Lives Matter D.C. “Doesn’t common sense dictate that when a president is going to go somewhere, because of the safety of the president, the park should be cleared?

“I wonder why he went at that time … but it’s certainly a security risk to have the president walk through any crowd,” Friechrich continued. 

“The mere implication of national security doesn’t make it true,” Michelman responded. “The presidential security justification is compromised by the fact that the president wasn’t even outside of the White House grounds for another 30 minutes while the attack was going on.”

Arguments went on for nearly three hours. Friedrich said that she would rule on the case shortly. 

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