President Donald Trump walks in Lafayette Park to visit outside St. John's Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night.
Fact-checking Trump's claims on tear gas used against protesters
04:47 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump and others in his administration have made multiple false, misleading or unsupported claims related to how they have responded to the recent wave of protests.

Trump claimed that Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser would not allow the local police department to help with the protests, though department officers were actually on the scene.

Trump and others said no tear gas was used, though police acknowledged dispersing protesters using a chemical riot control agent that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is sometimes referred to as tear gas.

Trump also claimed that he spent time in a bunker under the White House during the daytime to do an “inspection.” Numerous news outlets, including CNN, The New York Times and Fox News, reported that he was taken to the bunker for security reasons on Friday night.

Trump’s time in a White House bunker

In a Wednesday radio interview with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, Trump said news reports about how he had been rushed to an underground White House bunker during protests Friday night were “false.”

“I wasn’t down,” Trump said – then said, “I went down during the day,” not during the intense protests at night. He added that “I was there for a tiny, little short period of time,” and that it was “much more for an inspection” than because of an urgent security issue.

He said of the Secret Service: “They said it would be a good time to go down, take a look, because maybe some time you’re going to need it.”

Facts First: Multiple media outlets reported that this is not what happened.

CNN, The New York Times, and Kilmeade’s employer Fox News, among others, reported that Trump was hurried to the bunker on Friday night for security purposes, not for an inspection.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Betsy Klein reported: “Multiple people familiar with the matter described a different scenario to CNN. They said Trump was rushed to the bunker for nearly an hour amid intense protests on Friday evening. A law enforcement source and another source familiar with the matter tell CNN that first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, were also taken to the bunker.”

Local police and the protests

Trump tweeted Saturday in praise of the Secret Service response to Friday’s protests. He added, “On the bad side, the D.C. Mayor, @MurielBowser, who is always looking for money & help, wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved. ‘Not their job.’ Nice!”

Facts First: Trump is wrong. The Metropolitan Police Department was involved in policing protesters on Friday.

The Secret Service itself said in a Saturday statement that Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department was “on the scene” during the Friday protests.

During a press conference Saturday, Bowser responded to Trump’s tweet saying “no one needed to ask the Metropolitan Police Department to get involved, because we were already involved. Our police were doing their jobs from the start,” she said. “DC Police supported uniformed Secret Service last night like we have done literally dozens of times at Lafayette Park.”

In the press conference, DC Chief of Police Peter Newsham said that the MPD worked with the Secret Service and the Park Police Friday under “unified command” Friday night during protests in Lafayette Park, where there were a few skirmishes with protesters.

He also told reporters that MPD provided the Secret Service with some additional equipment that they did not have, including helmets. The Metro Police Department made no arrests, had no reports of injuries and no reports of use of force.

On the day Trump tweeted his attack against Bowser, the MPD ended up arresting 17 people during protests in the city.

Tear gas and pepper balls

A demonstrator pours water on a tear gas canister in front of the White House on May 31, 2020. - Police fired tear gas outside the White House late Sunday as major US cities were put under curfew to suppress rioting as anti-racism protestors again took to the streets to voice fury at police brutality.

Before President Donald Trump began his walk through Lafayette Square to hold up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, police worked to disperse a crowd to clear the way.

During this effort by the police, there were reports and eyewitness accounts that canisters were shot in the crowd, putting off thick smoke that contained an irritant that made people choke and cough.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, United States Park Police acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan said that “no tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park” but that smoke canisters and pepper balls, which accomplish the same broad effects as tear gas, were used against the crowd.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, the President claimed “they didn’t use tear gas” in clearing Lafayette Square, failing to mention the use of pepper balls. On Tuesday the Trump campaign demanded news outlets correct reports using the term “tear gas,” calling it a “lie.”

Facts First: Arguing that authorities did not use tear gas gives the false impression that irritants weren’t used against the crowd, and attempts to draw a technical distinction between two nonlethal compounds that have the same broad effects on people, causing blurry vision, burning in the eyes and nose, and more.

So what is the difference between tear gas and pepper spray/balls?

Tear gas and pepper spray fall under the umbrella term of “riot control agents” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the term “tear gas” is sometimes used to refer to riot control agents generally.

Tear gas and pepper spray/balls produce the same broad effects on people exposed, such as burning in the eyes, nose and mouth as well as effecting the lungs and skin according to the CDC. “Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as ‘tear gas’) are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin,” the CDC says.

Tear gas (which isn’t actually a gas, but is a powdery solid) is usually deployed from a cannister whereas pepper spray is sprayed or shot in balls that explode and spread the oil-based chemical on impact. Some of the effects of these agents can last up to 24 hours.

Pepper balls can be shot 150 feet and are used to target specific individuals as well as to saturate a crowd in the compound, according to a 2015 guide from the Fayetteville, Arkansas police department. The department guide also orders that “officers shall never target the head, neck or spine of an individual” and says that anyone hit in these areas “will receive immediate medical attention.”

Pushing back protesters

Police clash with protesters during a demonstration on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Since the controversial decision to forcefully clear protesters from in front of The White House Monday evening, complicated and sometimes conflicting explanations have emerged.

The US Park Police claimed on Tuesday that the decision to move on the protesters was prompted by violence from the protesters, who some claimed had thrown projectiles and attempted to grab officers’ weapons. Their decision to clear the park came after days of the police struggled to keep control of people around the park–including some who had set fires, destroyed a bathroom building and injured police officers.

President Donald Trump has turned the police’s approach into his own political flex, tweeting that fire damage to a nearby church incurred Sunday night proved the protesters on Monday evening were not being peaceful. He also shared an article from The Federalist arguing that the “Media Falsely Claimed Violent Riots Were Peaceful.”

Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany echoed the police narrative in a briefing Wednesday, saying “if the protesters had remained peaceful and had moved the perimeter as they were instructed to do not one, not two but three times via loudspeaker, it would have looked different. But when bricks are thrown, rest assured, officers will protect themselves.”

Facts First: The administration’s claims that violence from protesters led agents to move in is not supported by eye-witness accounts from CNN and other media outlets. It is also contradicted by reports from the Justice Department that the decision to clear the area was made much earlier in the day.

According to a Justice Department official, Attorney General William Barr and other top officials from agencies responsible for securing the White House had previously planned to secure a wider perimeter around Lafayette Square in response to fires and destruction caused by protesters on Sunday night. That plan, had it been enacted, would have cleared the area by 4 p.m. on Monday, hours before the violence alleged by park police.

When Barr arrived in the park around 6 p.m. and saw protesters still there, he reiterated the order. McEnany confirmed this series of events at Wednesday’s briefing.

Park Police had also planned to clear the space so a new fence could be erected sometime Monday, according to a statement from the force’s acting chief Gregory Monahan.

US Park Police issued the first warning to protesters at 6:22 pm. At the time, everyone, protesters and police alike, remained civil.

Around 6:30, protesters could be heard chanting, with several of them taking a knee according to footage shot by CNN. The statement from Park Police claims that “At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protesters on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids.”

CNN’s reporters on H St. and around Lafayette Square where the protests were taking place did not witness any water bottles being thrown nor does camera footage of the protests from numerous angles show any such evidence of violence.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Kenneth Spencer, a U.S. Park Police officer who was on the front line on Monday, defended the force’s removal of protesters, saying days of safety concerns led to an organic decision to push back the crowds.

“From the front line perspective, we were taking objects again. So everything kind of came together all at once,” he said on Wednesday, speaking to CNN while on duty at Lafayette Square. Spencer told CNN that on Monday he saw protesters on top of a public bathroom building.

“That, coupled with the fence needing to be erected–we decided to start dispersing the crowd to, A, stop the violence, and to let it be known you can protest but not engage in violent activities.”

Spencer said he had spoken to his police chief as early as the night before about making sure police officers weren’t hurt if the crowd threw things at them, as they had on the prior days.

The force had thought about using tear gas, he said, but instead cleared the crowd with smoke bombs, pepper balls and flash-bang grenades.

Spencer said Monday the Justice Department and White House had nothing to do with the Park Police’s choices in the moment on Monday.

“We don’t need anybody to tell us how to do our job,” Spencer said. “The White House has nothing to do with us being here in this park. That is our job.”

Religious leaders reaction to Trump’s photo-op

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington.

Trump was asked by Kilmeade about criticism from religious leaders of the Monday photo-op in which Trump held up a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. Trump responded by saying “most religious leaders loved it.”

“I heard Franklin Graham this morning thought it was great. I heard many other people think it was great. And it’s only the other side that didn’t like it, you know, the opposing – the opposition party, as the expression goes,” he said.

Facts First: The photo-op was sharply criticized by multiple religious leaders, including prominent members of the Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist clergy. Some of Trump’s Republican allies also said they did not like either the photo-op or how protesters were dispersed to make it happen.

Graham did praise the photo-op. So did another prominent evangelical Christian Trump mentioned to Kilmeade, pastor Robert Jeffress. And there’s no doubt some other religious leaders around the country supported it as well.

But it’s clear that Trump is exaggerating when he claims it is only “the opposition party” that didn’t like what he did.

Before Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine the day following the church photo-op, Catholic Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement that the late Pope “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington told CNN “I am outraged” about the photo-op, adding, “Let me be clear: The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention, J.D. Greear, issued a statement that did not suggest he “loved” what Trump did; he told the Washington Post: “The Bible is a book we should hold only with fear and trembling, given to us that in it we might find eternal life. Our only agenda should be to advance God’s kingdom, proclaim his gospel, or find rest for our souls.”

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (and a regular Trump critic), said he was “brokenhearted and alarmed” by both the death of Floyd and Trump’s response.

CNN’s Michael Warren reported: “Even some of Trump’s Republican allies in Congress expressed disagreement with Trump’s decision to attend the church. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a Southern Baptist, told reporters Tuesday he was not comfortable with the images of protesters being dispersed by force before Trump visited the church, while Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, an evangelical Presbyterian agreed in a statement. ‘I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,’ said Sasse.”