Tuesday marks one year since the controversial clearing of Lafayette Square protesters before President Trump visited St. John’s Church, and Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers have requested a federal judge toss out cases against former President Trump, former Attorney General Bill Barr and other Trump-era officials for their actions that day.
The D.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Lives Matter and other civil liberties groups had accused Trump and Barr of involvement in the decision of police to use pepper spray, smoke balls and other aggressive measures to clear the Washington, D.C. park before Trump walked across the square to get a photograph holding a bible in front of St. John’s, and half an hour before a city-wide curfew. The conflict was less than a week after the death of George Floyd.
Justice Department attorneys argued on Friday that Trump and other officials are immune from responsibility for police actions taken to protect a sitting president, and that the case is moot because the suit is personal to Trump, Barr and others who are now out of office.
The DOJ argued the plaintiffs’ claim of "fear of future injury" is based almost entirely on statements they attributed to federal officers who have since left office. The plaintiffs cited, among other evidence, tweets from the president calling protesters "thugs" and saying, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts."
"Plaintiffs never had standing to bring their equitable claims, but those claims are moot in any event," the DOJ concludes.
U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich seemed responsive to the government’s request in Friday’s hearing.
"You’ve got to wonder why he went at that point, but it’s certainly a security risk for the president to walk to the park," Friedrich said, agreeing with the need to clear the park to ensure the president’s safety.
In response, the plaintiffs argued the DOJ had not demonstrated "any policy change or statement by the incoming administration that will ensure the abuses of June 1 do not recur."
"There is no reason whatsoever to think that a mere change in administration on its own will protect Plaintiffs and others who seek to protest like them from further harm," they wrote.
Gregory Monahan, acting chief of police at the time, defended the forceful removal of protesters, saying his officers acted with "tremendous restraint."
"We did not clear the park for a photo-op," Monahan testified before a House committee last July, noting his officers gave protesters three warnings. "We cleared the park for public safety."
"There was 100 percent zero correlation between our operation and the president's visit to the church," the Park Police chief added. Police had said protesters were launching projectiles toward officers.
However, others, including Adam DeMarco, a major in the District of Columbia National Guard who was on the scene as a liaison between the Guard and the Park Police, said protesters were peaceful and were subjected to an "unprovoked" and "excessive" use of force.
Trump administration officials had told Fox News that Barr had ordered the clearing of the park before the president’s walk to the church, but Barr said officers had already begun clearing protesters when he arrived on the scene and denied giving orders to do so.
Fox News' Jake Gibson and Kerri Kupec contributed to this report.