US Attorney General Bill Barr on Thursday defended security forces firing pepper balls to forcibly clear peaceful demonstrators from a park in front of the White House before President Donald Trump crossed it for a photo opportunity.
The Justice Department chief had ordered the expansion of a security perimeter around Lafayette Park Monday just before Trump’s walk to the riot-scarred St. John’s Episcopal Church with top aides including Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The aggressive enforcement action sparked outrage among religious and civic leaders after security forces fired smoke bombs, pepper balls and other non-lethal munitions to clear hundreds of non-violent protesters.
“The president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation, and should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street to that church,” Barr said.
He told reporters however the decision to clear the park and expand the fence perimeter around the White House had been made before Trump’s decision to go to the church, where he posed with a bible in his hand.
There was “no correlation” between the two events, he said - though Trump would not have been able to walk to the church safely without the park being cleared.
“I think it was appropriate for us to go over with him,” Barr added. “I don’t necessarily view that as a political act.”
Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across the US in recent days to voice anger over the killing of African American George Floyd by Minnesota police.
Barr told reporters foreign government-backed manipulators were inflaming protests, and that federal law enforcement had arrested 51 people involved in violence.
The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, but Barr pointed to “extremist agitators who are hijacking the protests to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”
He cited the leftist group Antifa, anarchists, and other unnamed groups, but added: “We are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
Barr did not say which countries were involved but the point was also made on Sunday by White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who named China, Russia, Iran and Zimbabwe.