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Police did not clear Lafayette Park area so Trump could hold ‘Bible’ photo op: Watchdog

(WASHINGTON) — U.S. Park Police did not clear Lafayette Park and the nearby area of protesters on June 1, 2020, so President Donald Trump could walk from the White House over to St. John’s Church, but learned of his interest in surveying the site hours after they already had begun planning to clear the area to put up new fencing, according to a new watchdog report.

The Interior Department’s inspector general did not determine whether law enforcement acted inappropriately against demonstrators last year, but found that poor communication between agencies and ineffective dispersal warnings “may have contributed to confusion during the operation and the use of tactics that appeared inconsistent” with initial plans.

The office also concluded that the Park Police officers acted within their authority to begin clearing Lafayette Square before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew, a move that was widely criticized at the time as having contributed to the chaos and confusion at the scene.

Citing interviews, radio dispatches, videos and other records from Park Police, the 38-page report echoes claims from senior Trump administration officials last year that the park wasn’t cleared for Trump’s controversial photo op.

But it does not explore why so many officers used as much force as they did against peaceful protesters in the area that day – or dig deeper into the actions of the Secret Service and other federal entities on the ground.

Regarding claims of violent tactics used against protestors, the report said only that “individual uses of force” by Park Police officers “are the subject of separate inquiries or ongoing lawsuits.”

Given the narrow focus of its report on whether the U.S. Park Police exceeded its authority on June 1, the inspector general did not seek interviews with other key agencies and senior Trump administration officials, including leaders of the Secret Service, White House aides, or Attorney General Bill Barr.

Within minutes of the report’s release, Trump issued a statement through his office claiming vindication.

“Thank you to the Department of the Interior Inspector General for Completely and Totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park!” he said.

“As we have said all along, and it was backed up in today’s highly detailed and professionally written report, our fine Park Police made the decision to clear the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing to protect from Antifa rioters, radical BLM protestors, and other violent demonstrators who are causing chaos and death to our cities. In this instance, they tried burning down the church the day before the clearing. Fortunately, we were there to stop the fire from spreading beyond the basement – and it was our great honor and privilege to do so. Again, thank you to the Inspector General!” Trump’s statement said.

The report recommended the Park Police create new policies for handling and dispersing crowds, and improve coordination in the field between law enforcement partners.

“We believe that if the DOI implements the recommendations from our review of the events of June 1 in Lafayette Park to future activities, USPP efforts to protect these locations and those who visit them will improve for similar operations,” Greenblatt wrote in a statement.

The DOJ inspector general and the Government Accountability Office, another federal watchdog agency, are conducting their own inquiries into law enforcement responses to protests in Washington and around the country last summer, and there are several federal lawsuits against Trump over the forced clearing of the park outside the White House.

In response to the IG report, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — who was critical of the operation as a Democratic member of Congress last year — said the department planned to create a task force to review its law enforcement programs, and policies around body cameras and use of force.

In a statement, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, a California Democrat, questioned the report’s findings, and said his panel would continue its own inquiry into the operation.

“The Lafayette Square crackdown was played on repeat on televisions around the world and raised serious questions about why heavily armed law enforcement attacked peaceful civilians practicing their constitutional rights. Not only does this report not answer those questions, it doesn’t even seem to acknowledge them,” the statement said. “Our own investigation is ongoing, and we will continue to pursue answers to the questions this report didn’t satisfactorily address.”

Trump’s interior secretary, David Bernhardt, called for lawmakers and the news media to apologize to law enforcement.

“The Inspector General’s report, which I requested while serving as Secretary of the Interior, makes crystal clear that the irresponsible effort to attack the character of the men and women of the U.S. Park Police by falsely claiming that the goal of the actions taken in Lafayette Park were intended to provide a photo opportunity for the President were wrong,” he said. “Each person that made such a claim, whether in the Congress or in the media, owes an apology to the men and women of the U.S. Park Police, who were literally under siege in the nights leading up to the clearing. Both the incident commander and the then acting chief of police of the United States Park Police handled a difficult situation with distinction and that is reflected by the contents of this report,” Bernhardt said.

ABC News’ John Santucci contributed to this report.

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