As more evidence surfaces, showing how former attorney general William Barr worked to make sure that the Mueller investigation couldn’t touch Donald Trump, the current Department of Justice is put in a very ugly position. Even as a federal judge makes clear that Barr’s “summary” of the Mueller report badly misrepresented the true contents, and hints that the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction was anything but the result of careful deliberation, the DOJ is fighting in court in an effort to keep the truth about these decisions hidden. Over two years after Barr released his summary, Americans are still forced to squint at heavily redacted documents, or draw conclusions by looking at secondhand documents filed in defense of these actions. The truth of what Barr did remains maddeningly oblique.
It’s far from the only thing that happened over the last four years that’s still being hidden unnecessarily, and certainly not the only battle the DOJ is fighting to defend actions that generated active harm to the nation. As The Washington Post reported on Friday evening, the Justice Department has asked another judge to toss a quartet of lawsuits involving Barr’s ordering a violent clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square so that Trump could walk across the street and hold an upside-down Bible—bizarrely—above his head.
The DOJ is trying to make this an issue about “presidential safety,” but Trump’s safety was never in question. It was the safety of everyone else, those people who were exercising Constitutional rights to assemble that were already constrained by both fences and the presence of overwhelming military force, who suffered harm that day. What would most benefit the nation is not just a full investigation of what happened on the day of Trump’s Bible walk, but the DOJ stepping aside so these cases can go forward. Because there are questions here that desperately need serious answers.
The DOJ’s argument to U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich is that the lawsuits—from the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, other civil liberties groups, and some of the individual protesters harmed that day—is that “Trump and other U.S. officials are immune from civil lawsuits over police actions taken to protect a president and to secure his movements,.”
Only Trump was absolutely secure. Nothing that was happening in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020 in any way posed a danger to Trump. The problem was that Trump simply told Barr that he wanted to be over there, where the roughly 1,000 protestors were standing. With that, Barr ordered a violent assault on the square and associated park: A force that included not just local law enforcement, but Secret Service, Park Police, and Arlington County Police, fired pepper balls, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Horse-mounted officers pushed aggressively into the crowd, swinging batons as a mass of club-wielding officers came on. Then Trump—accompanied by not just Barr but General Mark Miley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—walked across the street to a church, waved a Bible around for a photo-op, and walked back home.
There is a difference between protecting the president, and saying that the president can go wherever he wants, for the most trivial of reasons, no matter how many people are harmed. Or at least, there should be. There is also a huge difference between what happened on June 1, and what happened on Jan. 6. This wasn’t a police line overwhelmed by a huge and violence crowd; this was a peaceful crowd that was overwhelmed by a violence police assault. That assault was ordered by Barr and Trump for no good reason.
For the DOJ to argue that this is an issue of protecting presidential safety isn’t just disingenuous, it’s dishonest. If upheld, it’s a license to end any protest by simply pointing at it and declaring that the president would like to stand over there.
Are there legitimate issues here surrounding the extents of protest and the actions of police, especially considering that earlier, on the evening of May 29, 2020, a number of Secret Service agents were injured by a group that did push past security boundaries? Absolutely. That’s why the best answer to these lawsuits is not to dismiss them, but to have them fully play out in court. Especially in light of the events over the last year, everyone needs to have a better idea of the real limits on both protesters and police. That won’t happen if the cases are dismissed.
Of course, there is someone who can address this: Attorney General Merrick Garland could simply order DOJ attorneys to stand down. That doesn’t mean surrendering the idea that the government should defend the president, or that all internal discussions should be subject to outside scrutiny. That means allowing these cases to go forward, so that the judiciary can break this logjam and define limits that give people inside and outside the government a firmer position for the future.