Trump and allies try to rewrite history on handling of police brutality protests
By Ashley Parker and Robert Costa
President Trump claimed on Wednesday that he had not hunkered down in a secure bunker as hundreds of protesters gathered around the White House last Friday night. He said Secret Service had not raced him to the secret underground location. And he described his trip to the subterranean space as a “tiny little short” visit that was really “much more for an inspection.”
But the president’s alternate history, which he unspooled to Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio Wednesday, was a false one — one facet of his days-long attempt to rewrite the history surrounding the police brutality protests that have engulfed the fortified White House in recent days.
Trump and his family were rushed to a secure bunker after at least four protesters breached the temporary fences set up near the Treasury Department grounds Friday around 7 p.m., according to arrest records and people familiar with the incident.
Trump and his allies have repeatedly sought to downplay or whitewash controversial decisions surrounding the protests and efforts to get them under control, including the use of force to disperse largely peaceful protesters Monday night in a way that enabled Trump to stage a photo op holding aloft a Bible in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The president and his team have offered a string of conflicting explanations and excuses for why protesters were cleared from the area around Lafayette Square in front of the White House, what methods were used to remove them and who was ultimately responsible for the decision.
The White House first claimed that the demonstrators — gathered to protest the videotaped police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis — were targeted in an effort to help enforce Washington’s 7 p.m. curfew, though District police did not request such assistance. The Park Police, meanwhile, said its officers moved against the crowd only after protesters began hurling projectiles.
Other officials said the crowd was cleared as part of an existing plan to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square; when Attorney General William P. Barr visited the square late Monday afternoon and saw the perimeter had not yet been extended, he then ordered it clear, they said.
During a briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the decision to remove the protesters had ultimately been made by Barr, while adding a new assertion that authorities had acted in self-defense in using chemical gas and other means of force to move the crowd.
“To protect the lives of officers, they have a right to defend and to protect themselves,” McEnany said.
Video footage, news reports and accounts from witnesses on the scene that night, however, show the event was largely peaceful before the administration’s use of force.
Another point of contention was the vehement denial by the White House, the Trump campaign, the Defense Department and the U.S. Park Police that tear gas had been used to help disperse the protests — despite real-time, firsthand accounts of a thick yellow smoke cloud hanging above the crowd, with protesters coughing, crying and even vomiting.
“No tear gas was used and no rubber bullets were used,” McEnany said Wednesday, a point she reiterated three times in her briefing.
But on tear gas, the distinction is largely one of semantics. The Park Police said the chemical agents they deployed against the crowd included “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters,” items the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website defines as “riot control agents (sometimes referred to as ‘tear gas’).” The CDC further identifies them as “chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”
Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and a host of “Pod Save America,” tweeted Wednesday about the litany of conflicting accounts put forward by the administration, including its prior claims about the coronavirus pandemic.
“The tear gas wasn’t tear gas. The photo op wasn’t a photo op. The protests weren’t peaceful. The death toll is exaggerated. The virus isn’t that bad. The economy doesn’t need any more help,” he wrote. “All they have left is telling us not to believe what we’re seeing with our own eyes.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers, said the shifting stories emanating from the administration are a reflection of a president “fraying at the edges.”
“This is a combination of damage control and the ongoing quest of Trump to force an alternate reality on the American public that’s very much a self-serving reality,” Ben-Ghiat said. “He needs to keep his followers in his alternate reality, or the whole thing falls apart.”
Trump has long elevated falsehoods and deception as a political strategy, making more than 19,000 false or misleading statements as president, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker.
The shifting stories surrounding his time in the bunker, as well as the spectacle outside the historic church Monday, were no exception.
When pressed by Kilmeade if he was “inspecting” the bunker because the Secret Service expressed concern for his safety, the president insisted that wasn’t the case. “Nope, they didn’t tell me that at all,” he said. “They said it would be a good time to go down, take a look, because maybe some time you’re going to need it.”
In fact, the president, the first lady and their teenage son Barron were rushed to the bunker Friday evening after an incident in which multiple people crossed over a larger barrier around the White House complex between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Secret Service officers detained at least four protesters, according to arrest records, after a breach that occurred around the time the Secret Service alert level on the White House complex was elevated from “yellow” to “red,” according to a law enforcement official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal safety maneuvers.
Trump’s revisionism appears to have left some in his administration uncomfortable. On Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official said that neither Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper nor Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knew when they joined Trump Monday that police were about to use force to disperse a gathering of protesters or that they would appear in the president’s church photo op.
In an interview with NBC News the same day, Esper said when he left the White House with Trump, he simply thought he was going to view a vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square and talk to the troops.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” Esper said at the time.
But during a news conference Wednesday, Esper seemed to contradict himself, saying that he did, in fact, know when he exited the White House that he was headed with Trump to the historic St. John’s church.
Still, he added, “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going, when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there.”
He also distanced himself from Trump’s suggestion of invoking the Insurrection Act, saying he does not support the use of active-duty military forces to quash unrest across the country.
Yet amid widespread criticism — including a statement Wednesday from Trump’s former defense secretary, Jim Mattis — most White House officials have vigorously defended the actions and view the church visit as a success. That approach has created a crippling “cultural” effect inside the West Wing, one administration official said, with top aides fearing that if they break from a sunny view of Trump’s decisions, they risk their job or standing in the president’s circle.
An outside Trump adviser described an atmosphere of “happy talk and high-fiving and backslapping,” where aides urge Trump to blame the media for any negative coverage.
During a staff meeting on Tuesday, senior White House officials celebrated Trump’s much-derided march across Lafayette Square as an upbeat show of strength and faith, the official and another Trump adviser said, shrugging off criticism as elitist and praising Trump for being able to appeal to religious voters with the Bible in his hand.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows heaped praise on Ivanka Trump — the president’s daughter and a senior adviser — for her role in the episode, although two officials said Meadows was likely doing that to ingratiate himself with her and her husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner. Meadows’s remarks about Ivanka Trump were first reported by the New York Times.
Stuart Stevens, the former chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and an adviser to the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super PAC, faulted Trump’s staff as much as the president for the recent controversies.
“What’s remarkable is not that Trump is doing it but that the group around him can’t stop him,” Stevens said. “None of this makes him look good. In a normal world, when you have a rattled politician or candidate, it’s up to staff to stabilize him and stop him from being self-destructive.”
Trump’s audience for his theatrical retellings and explanations of his conduct also extends to influential Fox News anchors, such as Tucker Carlson, who he watches regularly and sees as a political weather vane. Two White House officials said part of Trump’s impetus for recasting recent events was the sharp criticism Carlson has unleashed on Trump and others close to him this week, including Kushner and Vice President Pence.
“This is a national emergency,” Carlson said in his monologue on Monday night. “But you would never know that from listening to our elected leaders.” While he criticized Democrats, he also said “our so-called conservative leaders” have failed to properly respond and warned Trump would not be forgiven for “weakness.”
The president was so taken aback by Carlson’s criticism that he quipped to Pence this week that he was surprised that Carlson went after the vice president, two officials said.
Favreau said in an email that Trump’s “use of disinformation and propaganda” is a risky political strategy, especially when the facts don’t support his assertions.
“It’s hard to convince voters that the virus is gone when they know people who’ve been infected, or that the economy is better when they still don’t have a job, or that tear gas wasn’t used when they see people choking on the nightly news,” Favreau wrote. “You look out of touch with reality.”
Josh Dawsey and Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.