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Attorney General Barr Defends Response To Protests Near The White House

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, pictured last week in the Oval Office, denied that President Trump's controversial visit this week to St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., was a political move.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, pictured last week in the Oval Office, denied that President Trump's controversial visit this week to St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., was a political move.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday defended the decision to order that protesters be driven back from a park near the White House this week and said extremist groups were involved in sometimes violent demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd's death.

Floyd died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down at the neck for nearly nine minutes, prompting massive protests across the country denouncing racial inequality and police brutality. The now-fired officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday with other law enforcement officials, Barr said that it is "undeniable that many African Americans lack confidence in our American criminal justice system," adding, "This must change."

He called Thursday a "day of mourning," referring to Floyd's memorial service.

Of video showing the police officers' conduct when arresting Floyd, Barr said, "It is impossible for any normal human being not to be struck to the heart with horror."

A "witches brew of different organizations"

Barr said the aftermath of Floyd's death has produced a challenge to the rule of law in the form of "lawlessness, violent rioting, arson, looting of businesses and public property, assaults on law enforcement officers and innocent people."

"We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity," Barr said. "And we are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence."

Barr said the government is dealing with a "witches brew of different organizations" fomenting violence.

Barr said there have been 114 injuries to law enforcement personnel in Washington since Saturday, including 22 that required hospitalization. Donald Washington, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, said 21 U.S. courthouses across the country have been damaged.

Lafayette Square protests

Barr (center) stands in Lafayette Square across from the White House as demonstrators gather Monday to protest George Floyd's death.
Alex Brandon / AP
Barr (center) stands in Lafayette Square across from the White House as demonstrators gather Monday to protest George Floyd's death.

Barr has been leading the federal response to the protests, some of which had been violent. Barr has sent specialized teams of federal agents to help control protests in Washington, D.C., and Miami, and the FBI is setting up command posts in cities across the country.

In particular, Barr defended the federal response to the protest Monday in Lafayette Square in Washington, saying demonstrators had thrown projectiles and the group was "becoming increasingly unruly."

The actions of police, who aggressively cleared the largely peaceful protesters, have been broadly criticized.

"We asked three times" for the demonstrators to move back one block, Barr said Thursday. When they refused, he said, "We moved our perimeter."

Barr also defended the large amount of federal law enforcement officers in Washington, saying it was "the federal city" and there was a large-scale disturbance threatening federal property, including government buildings and monuments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for more transparency about who is in charge of law enforcement in the capital.

"We are concerned about the increased militarization and lack of clarity that may increase chaos," she said in a letter to President Trump, requesting "a full list of the agencies involved and clarifications of the roles and responsibilities of the troops and federal law enforcement resources operating in the city."

Trump's walk to the church

Barr also defended the president's widely criticized visit Monday to St. John's Church amid the protests. He said the decision to clear Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, was made before he was aware of Trump's plans.

The church had been damaged in a fire the previous night. Trump walked to the church and held up a Bible after giving a speech at the White House threatening to use the military to quell protests. The bishop who oversees the church had sharp words for the president.

"He did not offer a word of balm or condolence to those who are grieving," Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington told NPR.

Barr said Thursday that Trump had the right to go and denied it was a political move.

"The president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk across the street to the church of presidents," Barr said. "I don't necessarily view that as a political act."

Barr said he did not know that the president was visiting the church when the decision was made to clear the protesters. Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper accompanied Trump to the church.

"There was no correlation between our tactical plan to clear the perimeter out by one block and the president's going over to the church," Barr said. "The president asked members of his Cabinet to go over there with him, the two that were present, and I think it was appropriate for us to go over with him."

Esper said Wednesday that he was "not aware of exactly where we were going" and has been critical of Trump's threats to use the military against violent protests.

"Trying to find a way forward"

Barr was joined Thursday by FBI Director Christopher Wray as well as the heads of the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Wray said he was "appalled and profoundly troubled by the video images" of the events that led to Floyd's death.

He said Floyd's family as well as the entire country was "trying to find a way forward."

"That's because this is not just about George Floyd," Wray said. "This is about all of those over the years who have been unjustifiably killed or had their rights violated."

He added, "When law enforcement fails to fulfill its most basic duty to protect and serve its citizens, particularly members of a minority community, it not only tarnishes the badge we all wear but erodes the trust that so many of us in law enforcement have worked so hard to build."

The Justice Department officials reiterated the right of Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to protest peacefully but called out the smaller group of people who have "hijacked" those efforts.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.