Philip Bump can't let go of the Lafayette Park narrative

Matt McClain/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

Yesterday the IG for the Interior Department released a report which completely demolished a media narrative that sprung up almost instantly after the clearing of the Lafayette Park on June 1, 2020. The narrative which was repeated everywhere claimed that President Trump had ordered the clearing of the park so he could have a photo op at St. John’s church with a bible. Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald walked through some of the media/Democratic lowlights:

This tale was so pervasive in the media landscape that it would be impossible for any one article to compile all the examples. “Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op,” read the NPR headline on June 1. The New York Times ran with: “Protesters Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Could Pose at Church.” CNN devoted multiple segments to venting indignation while the on-screen graphic declared: “Peaceful Protesters Near White House Tear-Gassed, Shot With Rubber Bullets So Trump Can Have Church Photo Op.”

ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos “reported” that “the administration asked police to clear peaceful protesters from the park across the White House so that the President could stage a photo op.” The Intercept published an article stating that “federal police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters from Lafayette Square in front of the White House,” all to feature a video where the first interviewee said: “to me, the way our military and police have behaved toward the protesters at the instruction of President Trump has almost been Nazi-like.”Nazi-like.

At a June 2 Press Conference, then-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) proclaimed with anger: “last night I watched as President Trump, having gassed peaceful protesters just so he could do this photo op, then he went on to teargas priests who were helping protesters in Lafayette Park.” Speaking on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi exclaimed: “What is this, a banana republic?,” when asked about NBC News’ report that “security forces used tear gas and flash-bangs against a crowd of peaceful demonstrators to clear the area for the president.”

One of the people who pushed the narrative the hardest was Phillip Bump of the Washington Post. He published two different pieces about it on June 5 of last year, both of which claimed explicitly that the Park was cleared on the orders of AG Barr. The first one opened:

On Monday afternoon, Attorney General William P. Barr instructed security forces standing between the White House and a large group of vocal, peaceful protesters to begin moving the demonstrators away from the area.

And the second one, a timeline which Bump used to back up his case, said pretty much the same thing:

A reconstruction of the events that led to the clearing of Lafayette Square on Monday evening reinforces that the area was cleared at the direction of Attorney General William P. Barr and strongly suggests that it was cleared to facilitate President Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church, just north of the White House.

The IG report published yesterday said in no uncertain terms that wasn’t true. But Philip Bump wrote an entire piece today essentially clinging to the idea that maybe, somehow Barr was still responsible. The piece is headlined, “The lingering questions about the clearing of Lafayette Square,” which suggests there are some lingering questions. Bump spends 13 paragraphs rehearsing Barr’s appearance complete with video clips and then he finally mentions the actual news from the IG report:

The gist of the report is that this was essentially a coincidence.

The inspector general’s assessment does add new information to the established timeline that reinforces the Park Police’s assertions that the area was cleared in order to erect new fencing to better protect the White House complex. Its initial news release about the effort to clear the area cited this rationale largely in passing, focusing instead on the need to clear the area in order to “curtail the violence that was underway.” In the days that followed, though, it became the central motivating factor, including being cited by Barr in an interview with CBS News.

We now know, for example, that the plan to install fencing along the square was, in fact, ready to be initiated. There were three trucks with material already on scene by 5:30 p.m. At 5:50 p.m., the report indicates that the incident commander for the Park Police “instructed the USPP Horse Mounted Patrol unit and the USPP and ACPD civil disturbance units to prepare for deployment onto H Street,” the street just north of the square and the northern boundary of the secure area. “At 6:04 p.m.,” the report continues, “the USPP incident commander drafted the dispersal warning on his mobile phone.”

Both of those preparations were made before Barr’s arrival on-scene. That’s compelling evidence for the argument that the area was going to be cleared despite Barr’s presence.

Instead of stopping there, Bump spends another 17 paragraphs arguing that Barr’s visit gave the Park Police a “nudge” to clear the park sooner than they otherwise would have done so:

But there are other details which continue to suggest that there was a sense of urgency driven by the White House…

While there are repeated references within the report to the fact that the Park Police do not report to Barr, it’s obviously the case that any pressure from the attorney general would not be insignificant…

It’s this distinction that is now the crux of the issue. There was a curfew coming into effect at 7 p.m. for which the Park Police chose not to wait. It chose to clear the area right at the moment that the White House was making preparations for Trump to come out. It is, in fact, possible that this was a coincidence that worked out for the president; that the Park Police were just about to push the protesters back and Trump just had to kick out his speech by half an hour.

Bump clearly wants to believe this because it’s a way to salvage some small portion of the narrative he helped construct. But the IG report explicitly says that wasn’t the case, that in fact the operation to clear the park was planned hours earlier and was already underway when Barr showed up.

We also found no evidence that the Attorney General’s visit to Lafayette Park at 6:10 p.m. caused the USPP to alter its plans to clear the park. Both the USPP incident and operations commanders told us that the USPP had initiated the plan to clear Lafayette Park before the Attorney General arrived and that his presence had no influence on the USPP’s timeline or decisions. The evidence we reviewed also confirmed that the plan to disperse the protesters was underway before the Attorney General arrived in Lafayette Park. For example, the radio logs established that the law enforcement units were moving into position at least 20 minutes before the Attorney General arrived in the park and that the USPP incident commander completed drafting the dispersal warnings approximately 6 minutes before the Attorney General arrived in the park. The USPP incident commander also explained that the operation, which involved coordinating numerous law enforcement agencies, could not have been altered in the short period of time between the Attorney General’s arrival at 6:10 p.m. and the USPP incident commander’s first dispersal warning at 6:23 p.m. Furthermore, the USPP acting chief of police and the USPP incident commander both stated they never learned an exact time for the President’s potential movement and were unaware that he planned to give a speech in the Rose Garden that evening. Numerous witnesses, including the DCNG major and the MPD assistant chief of police, also told us it was their understanding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to build and install the antiscale fence. No one we interviewed stated that the USPP cleared the park because of a potential visit by the President or that the USPP altered the timeline to accommodate the President’s movement.

Maybe Barr did go out there with the intention of giving the Park Police a nudge but if so it came too late to matter. The operation had already started. The more significant point, which Bump barely mentions, is that the whole media narrative about Trump clearing the park with tear gas for a photo op was false. Given how much effort Bump spent promoting that narrative last year, he could do better than burying the “compelling evidence” about what really happened 15 paragraphs into a piece about “lingering questions” that aren’t actually lingering.