WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Church was not the reason protesters were forcibly removed from a public square near the White House last month, the chief of U.S. Park Police told Congress on Tuesday.
Chief Gregory Monahan repeated this position during an often tense House Natural Resources Committee hearing in which Democrats doggedly pursued for more than an hour information on the intricacies of who issued the order to clear Lafayette Square on June 1 and why.
“There is 100% zero correlation between our operation and the president’s visit” to St. John’s Church, Monahan said.
The plan to clear the park was underway days before, he claimed, and was prompted by the back-to-back nights of civil unrest that had exploded in Washington in response to the police killing of George Floyd only days earlier in Minneapolis.
Democratic lawmakers played back multiple videos depicting protesters and reporters alike taking direct blows from riot-gear clad officers who advanced in a formidable wall of shields, helmets and batons to disperse those carrying little more than carboard signs or cameras.
The area had to be cleared, Monahan insisted Tuesday, so that no-scale fencing could be erected at Lafayette Square. That decision and the decision by the Park Police to use chemical irritants to disperse protesters was based on what the chief described as “sustained violence” launched against law enforcement in the nation’s capital.
At another hearing in Washington on Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr appeared to confirm Monahan’s testimony, telling lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee that the plans to remove protesters from Lafayette Square were arranged on May 31.
But when Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, asked Monahan to provide direct evidence or an example of violence that triggered the Park Police response on June 1 specifically, Monahan could only point to one incident.
A police officer donning a helmet took a brick to the head from a protester and was injured. He has not returned to work since. While regrettable, Huffman and other Democrats noted that the officer was only hurt after police started to clear Lafayette Square by force via pepper balls, flashbangs and what was widely reported as tear gas.
The day had been mostly peaceful and that provocation did not come until mere minutes before the president left the White House on foot surrounded by senior administration and military officials.
Earlier that same day, Trump also boasted in a phone call with governors that his administration was “ going to do something people haven’t seen before” to quell national unrest and that there would be “total domination” in the streets.
As to the nature of chemical agents used to disperse the crowd, Monahan denied it was tear gas. Cannisters of spent tear gas were found near Lafayette Square by protesters and others like D.C. National Guard Major Adam DeMarco, who also testified on Tuesday.
DeMarco was activated in March to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, but he became the civil disturbance liaison between the D.C. National Guard and Park Police stationed near Lafayette Square when protests over Floyd’s death broke out in Washington on May 29.
He said what he saw disturbed him for days and caused him to lose sleep.
“The use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was unnecessary. Protesters were engaged in a peaceful demonstration of their rights and they were subjected to attacks,” DeMarco said.
Where Monahan claimed audible warnings were issued up to three times in the minutes before officers surged, DeMarco said he heard no such warning. Where Monahan claimed a long-range acoustic device was used to ensure the warning was heard from the front to back of the crowd, DeMarco said he only saw a megaphone utilized by police.
“I could barely understand the message being delivered,” he said, noting he could only hear every other word at best.
Representative Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and combat veteran, asked DeMarco to assess what the differences were between the people in the streets on May 31 and on June 1.
On May 31, DeMarco said, under army training classification, what he witnessed broadly was rioting in the nation’s capital. But on June 1, that simply wasn’t the case.
When he saw officers advancing in a wall, DeMarco testified the tactic felt like it was the most ineffective way possible to de-escalate tensions with nonviolent protesters and head off possible chaos.
“At no time did I feel threatened or assessed protesters to be violent,” he said.
The major also recalled finding emptied canisters of tear gas around Lafayette Square and told Representative Mike Levin, a California Democrat, that not even in Iraq would American soldiers use tear gas against their enemies to disperse them due to existing rules and conventions.
In contrast, Monahan revealed he did not know tear gas was banned in combat.
Gallego, a former U.S. Marine, was appalled by Monahan’s testimony.
“No one was injured, by the way, until you all advanced. If I had acted that way when I was in the Marine Corps, I would have been busted down a couple of ranks,” he said.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.