Just minutes before President Donald Trump was scheduled to give a speech in the White House Rose Garden about the anti–police brutality protests, law enforcement officers outside the White House launched tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in neighboring Lafayette Square.
It produced a shocking scene of federal officials shooting a weapon banned from warfare at Americans. The crowd scattered, allowing Secret Service, National Guard, and Park Police personnel to make a path for Trump and his team to visit a nearby church after his address.
That led to widespread speculation that Trump or someone else at the White House had ordered the tear gas attack solely to give Trump the photo op he wanted with his team at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a recent cause célèbre among the right after its basement was partially burned during the unrest on Sunday night.
All of this seemed surreal, and deeply disturbing if true. Did the White House purposely have federal officials shoot at American citizens with tear gas solely to benefit Trump?
So I asked the White House, via email, a simple question: “Do [you] know who gave the order to clear the crowd in Lafayette Square with tear gas?”
Here’s the response from Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson: “The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7:00 pm curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the US Park Police.”
This explanation is suspect for several reasons — the most important being that, although DC Mayor Bowser had ordered a curfew for DC starting at 7 pm, video of the incident shows that law enforcement fired the tear gas well before then.
Second, the statement did not address the question of who gave the order.
And third, the statement explicitly mentions the church, which seems to signal that the goal of the whole ordeal was to get Trump to St. John’s no matter what.
This is what happened on the other side of the White House only 5 minutes before President Trump began remarks in the Rose Garden. pic.twitter.com/n3UNLTBAKn
— Allie Malloy (@AlliemalCNN) June 1, 2020
I followed up with Deere in an email, asking two questions: “1) The tear gas was shot well before 7pm. Was it necessary to launch?” and (again), “2) Who ordered the tear gas launch?”
“You have my statement,” he responded. “I have nothing further to share.”
Let’s be clear about what this means: The White House is explicitly not denying that Trump or another administration official greenlit the tear gas attack, and there’s no clear explanation why anyone thought using tear gas on peaceful protesters was warranted just so the president could have a photo op.
At a time when citizens across the country are taking to the streets by the thousands to demand accountability for unchecked police violence, the White House — perhaps even the president himself — seems to have made a conscious decision to respond to one of those (entirely peaceful) protests with more unchecked police violence.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.