Police did not disperse protesters so Trump could hold photo op, U.S. watchdog finds

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WASHINGTON, June 9 (Reuters) - A U.S. government watchdog on Wednesday released a report finding that federal police did not clear protesters from a park near the White House last summer so that former president Donald Trump could walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity.

The report, by the U.S. Interior Department’s inspector general, said U.S. Park Police violently dispersed people from Lafayette Park on June 1, 2020 as part of a plan made earlier in the day for a contractor to install fencing.

The report stated that U.S. Park Police had begun implementing the fencing plan "several hours" before they knew of Trump's visit to the park, which occurred later that day.

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"We found that the USPP had the authority and discretion to clear Lafayette Park and the surrounding areas on June 1," the government watchdog said in a summary of its findings. "The evidence we obtained did not support a finding that the USPP cleared the park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John’s Church."

The report recommended U.S. Park Police develop more detailed policies for dispersing crowds, and improve coordination between federal agencies.

The report drew criticism from congressional Democrats, who have faulted federal agents for their use of pepper spray to clear protesters from the square and street.

“I come away from this report skeptical of the version presented here,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, a California Democrat, in a statement.

“The Lafayette Square crackdown was played on repeat on televisions around the world and raised serious questions about why heavily armed law enforcement attacked peaceful civilians practicing their constitutional rights," Grijalva said. "Not only does this report not answer those questions, it doesn’t even seem to acknowledge them."

Trump called the report an "exoneration" in a statement.

"As we have said all along, and it was backed up in today’s highly detailed and professionally written report, our fine Park Police made the decision to clear the park to allow a contractor to safely install antiscale fencing," Trump said.

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Reporting by Jan Wolfe Editing by Chris Reese

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