June 9 (UPI) -- U.S. Park Police cleared Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Park near the White House last June to erect fencing around the area, not to make way for former President Donald Trump's walk to St. John's church, an Interior Department watchdog said Wednesday.
The department's inspector general said the commander in charge of clearing out the crowd didn't know of Trump's plans to walk through the park to the church before plans were already in motion to disperse protesters. The USPP told the inspector general that they sought to clear the area in order to erect anti-scale fencing around the park in response to violence and vandalism experienced during previous days' protests.
"We found that the USPP had the authority and discretion to clear Lafayette Park and the surrounding areas on June 1," the inspector general's office said. "The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the president to survey the damage and walk to St. John's Church.
"Instead, the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31. Further, the evidence showed that the USPP did not know about the President's potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1 -- hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park."
Additionally, the inspector general said poor communication with Bureau of Prisons officers, who assisted, resulted in the latter using tear gas against the protesters, which was "inconsistent with the incident commander's operational plan." The Bureau of Prisons officers were late and missed an operational briefing.
To some outside observers, though, it appeared as though the operation was executed to clear a path for Trump to walk from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church, where he stood outside for a photo op while holding a Bible. Trump had denounced violence by protesters, which resulted in a fire at the church and damage to the park.
Trump thanked the inspector general for "completely and totally exonerating me in the clearing of Lafayette Park."
"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," Trump said in a statement on his website.
"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!"
Media reports from the June 1 protest and clearing said demonstrators had been peaceful before officers came through and dispersed them using the tear gas and other forceful methods.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Trump, former Attorney General William Barr and other top officials in the days after the clearing, saying BLM protesters' civil rights were violated. The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, and the Arnold & Porter law firm also joined the suit representing eight demonstrators.
Scott Michelman, legal director for the ACLU of the District of Columbia, accused the government of giving "various conflicting explanations for the shocking attack" on protesters.
"The federal officials' briefs in our ongoing lawsuit about the attack also offer inconsistent narratives. These shifting explanations cannot distract from the fundamental problem: The force used against the demonstrators at Lafayette Square was grossly excessive in relation to any conceivably legitimate purpose," he said.
"Given the severity and coordinated nature of the attack, it cannot be chalked up, as the Interior Department now suggests, to confusion or miscommunications. The assault on the civil rights protesters was a clear violation of the Constitution, and the federal officials who ordered it and perpetrated it must be held accountable."