In 2016, Karen Tumulty wrote a column in the Washington Post entitled “Trump: Never Wrong, Never Sad, Never Responsible,” in which she criticized Donald Trump as someone who refused to “take responsibility for the outrageous things.” that he said and did ”. Tumulty’s column came to mind this week when the Washington Post was faced with a federal report that exposed literally dozen of Post articles regarding the June 1, 2020 eviction from the Lafayette Square area. The Home Office’s Inspector General clearly denied claims that former Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the clearing so Trump could hold his controversial photo op in front of St. John’s Church. The Post (which proclaims that “democracy dies in the dark”) sheds little light on its own role in promoting this conspiracy theory.
The Washington Post was one of the most cited sources for the photo op myth. In fact, the Post’s 12-minute “video timeline” was heralded as the definitive source for what was happening, and even won the 2021 duPont-Columbia Award.
One of the most cited articles is from Philip Bump, entitled “Attorney General Bill Barr’s Dishonest Defense of Clearing of Lafayette Square.” Not only did the Post refer to the “debunked claim” that the federal government did not use tear gas, but continues unbelievably:
“It is the job of the media to tell the truth. The truth is that Barr’s arguments about last Monday’s events collapse under scrutiny, and that his mere assertion that there was no connection between the eviction of the square and Trump’s photo op should be treated with the same skepticism that his claims about the Bring in use of tear gas. “
It turns out that both of these claims appear to be true. So what is the “job of the media” if their previous claims are exposed? Furthermore, there was never any basis for the Post to call this conspiracy theory fact. The IG stated that “the USPP cleared the park so that the contractor could safely install the lime protection fence in response to property destruction and injury to officials on May 30th and 31st.” Conversely, it was not done, ” to allow the President to assess the damage and go to St. John’s Church ”.
After the report was published, the Post responded with a second article by Bump, entitled “The lingering questions about the clearing of Lafayette Square,” which struggles to keep doubts (and conspiracy theory) alive. Bump emphasizes a scene shortly before surgery in which Barr allegedly said, “Are these people still here when POTUS comes out?” Bump says this relates to the protesters and still raises a “pending question”.
However, the Post admits, buried in the article, that this statement does not contradict the account of the purpose of the operation or its timing. It admits that “these preparations were made before Barr arrived on the scene. This is compelling evidence of the argument that the area should be evacuated despite Barr’s presence. ”It also states that“ the Inspector General’s assessment adds new information to the established schedule that corroborates the Park Police’s claims that the area has been evacuated, to build new fences to better protect the White House complex. “
It’s not particularly new information. In fact, in my testimony to Congress just weeks after the operation, I presented the evidence against the conspiracy theory.
The most obvious explanation for the evacuation from the start has been the high level of violence by protesters around the White House. While many still claim today that the protests were “completely peaceful” and that there was no “attack on the White House,” this claim is proven to be false. In fact, days of protests around the White House resulted in an unusually large number of officials being injured. In addition to reports, 150 officers were injured (including at least 49 park police officers around the White House) and protesters caused extensive property damage, including setting fire to a historic building and attempting to set fire to St. John’s. The threat was so great that Trump had to be moved to the bunker because the Secret Service feared a breach of security around the White House.
The extension of the perimeter is the same decision (and indeed the same fencing) by Congress as it responded to the January 6 riots of this year. Without such a fence, an extremely dangerous situation could have arisen in which a serious breach of the White House borders would have triggered the use of deadly force with the potential for high loss of life.
Despite the evidence to the contrary (and the admissions in his article), Bump still wonders if this was all just “essentially a fluke”. That’s the quirky element. The Post admits that the report detailed the approval of the plan at least a day in advance to tackle violence in the White House and the threat of site rupture. It also details how the operation should resume earlier that day, but staff and fences were delayed. Meanwhile, the White House made a voluntary decision to go ahead with a photo op. Barr’s comment seems obvious once he is informed of the schedule for a photo op, as the staff were still on duty to clear the area. None of this seems particularly challenging or incomprehensible.
Neither does Bump go around mocking Barr as a liar for denying the federal operation used tear gas. The German government has long denied using “tear gas” in its operation, as opposed to pepper balls, during the evacuation on June 6th. The difference has no real meaning either legally or in practice. The IG stated that “the USPP incident commander did not approve CS gas for this operation. Expecting that CS gas would not be used, most USPP officials did not wear gas masks. Not only did the IG find no evidence of tear gas in the federal operation, it confirmed, “and the MPD confirmed that the MPD used CS gas on 17th Street on June 1 to control or direct the unified command structure of the USPP and the Secret Service . “
In fact, the district admitted last week that it used tear gas about a block away in enforcing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s curfew. The admission was breathtaking in itself, as the media raved about Bowser for her stance against the operation, and specifically the use of tear gas. For a year the county knew he was using tear gas and said nothing to the public when Bowser basked in the media – and Barr was attacked as a liar.
Now, on the anniversary of the operation, the Bowser administration argues that the use of tear gas was appropriate and that the evacuation of the area was appropriate. The Biden government also moves the BLM case to be dismissed, stating: “The safety of the President is a primary government interest that weighs heavily in the balance of the Fourth Amendment.”
What is striking about the Post’s article is that it mockingly treats the federal government’s denial of the conspiracy theory or the use of tear gas. Although the Post, in good faith, withheld its final verdict and could not simply accept the government denials, it had no basis to present the allegations of the photo ops as virtual facts. (In fact, I thought the evidence contradicted the photo operation allegation, but in testifying I encouraged Congress to investigate and confirm the facts about the purpose of the operation and the federal refusal to use tear gas as opposed to pepperballs). Even in the face of a detailed federal report, the Post still claims “pending questions” – a level of scrutiny and skepticism that was lacking in promoting the photo op claim last year.
Ultimately, the IG report can say more about our media culture than the clearing itself. The media actively shaped the news to match a narrative that is still widespread. As Tumulty said of Trump in 2016, “refusing to apologize is another move by the. . . Strength ”for those who prefer myth to facts. There is an old saying in journalism that there are simply “facts too good to be verified”. The Post showed that there are also some false facts that are too good to be corrected.