Attorney General William Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials on the ground to clear the streets around Lafayette Square just before President Trump spoke Monday, a Justice Department official said, a directive that prompted a show of aggression against a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, drawing widespread condemnation.
Officers from the US Park Police and other agencies used smoke canisters, riot shields, batons, and officers on horseback to shove and chase people gathered to protest the death of George Floyd. At one point, a line of police rushed a group of protesters standing on H Street, many of whom were standing still with their hands up, forcing them to race away, coughing from smoke. Some were struck by rubber bullets.
Secret Service officers then surrounded the area and created a protective zone for Trump, who moments later crossed the street and made an appearance outside St. John’s Episcopal Church.
On Tuesday, however, federal officials offered conflicting reasons for the forcible removal of the protesters, seeking to separate the move from Trump’s visit to the church.
The White House asserted that the crowd was dispersed to help enforce the city’s 7 p.m. curfew. Meanwhile, two federal law enforcement officials said the decision had been made late Sunday night or early Monday morning to extend the perimeter around Lafayette Square by one block.
The plan was to be executed, according to the Justice Department official, the following afternoon. Barr was a part of the decision-making process, said the official, who was not authorized to speak ahead of Barr addressing the matter himself publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Justice Department official said that in the afternoon, Barr went to survey the scene and found the perimeter had not been extended. The attorney general conferred with law enforcement officials on the ground.
‘‘He conferred with them to check on the status, and basically said, ‘This needs to be done. Get it done,’’’ the Justice Department official said.
Police soon moved on the protesters.
Throughout Tuesday, several federal agencies involved in the response declined to answer questions about who ordered the use of force and the clearing of the park, which occurred just before Trump’s visit to the park.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on who gave the order, referring questions to law enforcement agencies.
The Secret Service declined to comment. A spokesman for the US Park Police said the agency would have a statement, but did not provide one as of Tuesday afternoon.
Defense officials on Tuesday said the National Guard did not participate in decision to clear Lafayette Square on Monday evening and did not take part in firing any rubber bullets or gas.
D.C. city officials said they were not involved in the decision to use force, which Mayor Muriel Bowser called ‘‘shameful.’’
Trump had directed Barr to personally ‘‘lead’’ the response to the unrest in D.C. Monday night, according to Justice Department spokeswoman.
Less than an hour before police moved to clear the peaceful demonstrators from in front of Lafayette Park, Barr was spotted on video talking to officials at the scene.