How the mainstream media fell for the Lafayette Square whitewash
The gassing of protesters at Washington's Lafayette Square in June 2020, by all appearances intended to clear the area for a photo op by then-President Trump, was witnessed in person by dozens of reporters and remotely by millions of television viewers. But a review by the inspector general (IG) of the Interior Department, the parent agency of the U.S. Park Service that administers the square, ostensibly clears the Park Service of gassing the crowd to accommodate Trump.
The following headlines are typical of the major media's reporting of the finding. USA Today says "Police did not clear protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump photo op, inspector general finds." CNN: "Watchdog report finds Park Police did not clear racial injustice protesters from Lafayette Park for Trump's visit to St. John's Church last June." ABC News: "Police did not clear Lafayette Square so Trump could hold 'Bible' photo op: Watchdog." Does this mean exoneration for Trump and the agencies dealing with the incident?
No, not even close. Nor could it demonstrate much of anything, given both the predetermined scope of the report in question as well as the gradual deterioration of agency IG operations in general over the years.
As a former career staff member for Congress, I was a major institutional "customer" of IG reports. Congress created the IGs in 1978; the intention was to have an independent watchdog in each department of the executive branch to expose waste fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.
While created with good intentions, I began to sense that the IGs had gradually succumbed to bureaucratic sclerosis and capture by their own departments. They became narrowly focused on whether the subject of their investigations adhered to established processes, while ignoring questions of the competence, judgment, or honesty. In short, the watchdog seemed toothless to me.
To test my impression, I asked Brian J. O'Malley, a retired government official who had the double benefit of working both for Congress, where he was a consumer of IG material, but also in the IG office of the Transportation Department, where he helped root out the waste and contractor fraud behind Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel project.
He noted that there is more than one category of IG report. The first is an audit conducted in accordance to Government Accountability Office (GAO) standards found in a volume called the Yellow Book. It is an extensively documented process that has cross-referenceable workpapers for every finding in the audit and those are scrutinized by an independent team of auditors for thoroughness and lack of bias.
The second is an inspection conducted in accordance with those GAO standards found in the so-called Gray Book. It is a faster procedure, providing a snapshot of the operational condition of the reviewed agency's status with respect to any given situation. There are work papers to validate findings but they are not as extensively scrutinized, although they are reviewed for lack of bias.
Then there is the case of the Special Review, such as that of the Lafayette incident: Review of U.S. Park Police Actions at Lafayette Park, Case No. OI-PI-20-0563-P. It is neither an audit nor an inspection. It is a review. There are no standards for reviews, no verification by an independent reviewer, and no review for bias. In fact, the review plainly states its extreme limitations. Here are some excerpts:
Our oversight obligations are focused on the DOI, and our authority to obtain documents and statements from non-DOI entities is more limited.
... [W]e interviewed more than 20 USPP and NPS officials involved in policing the protests in and around Lafayette Park on June 1, including then USPP Acting Chief of Police Gregory Monahan, the USPP incident commander, the USPP operations commander, and the USPP deputy operations commander. We also reviewed the USPP's administrative record, emails, text messages, and video footage from observation posts.
Finally, we reviewed U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) and USPP policies and procedures, open-source videos, media articles, and congressional testimony.
Therefore, the review was only of Interior Department personnel, the department's documents and apparently some media coverage. In a footnote in miniscule font size the review points out:
Because our review focused on the operational actions of law enforcement, we did not seek to interview protesters for this review.
The principal limitation, which was rather breathtaking, was described as follows:
Accordingly, we did not seek to interview Attorney General William Barr, White House personnel, Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, MPD [Washington Metropolitan Police] personnel, or Secret Service personnel regarding their independent decisions that did not involve the USPP.
Despite this complete lack of information from any of the other agencies involved, the IG review stated unequivocally that there was no evidence that the Park Police cleared Lafayette Park to allow the President to survey the damage and walk to St. John's Church. Virtually the whole review rested on the purported issue of the Park Police clearing the area to allow the contractor to install fencing.
But the Park Police would have had no idea what the other agencies were doing and what their leaders were ordering:
Finally, we found that the USPP and the Secret Service did not use a shared radio channel to communicate, that the USPP primarily conveyed information orally to assisting law enforcement entities, that an assisting law enforcement entity arrived late and may not have received a full briefing on the rules of engagement, and that several law enforcement officers could not clearly hear the incident commander's dispersal warnings.
And another tiny footnote states that the Park Police was not even running the operation:
The USPP acting chief of police was in Lafayette Park on June 1 serving in his role as the chief of police, but he did not direct the unified command.
What is one to make of this report? O'Malley told me the following: "Like many efforts by inspectors general it seeks to deflect criticism of their own department by defining problems so that they lie outside the scope of their review. It clearly does not absolve anyone in the White House or then-Attorney General Barr from meddling in the situation as a political stunt. This report is a shameful, cover-your-ass effort to throw other agencies under the bus for all the disgraceful actions on that day. It has been exploited by the malefactors of that day to provide a fig leaf of phony exoneration."
Despite most of the media having been bamboozled, some journalists weren't having any of it. The Washington Post's Philip Bump analyzed the available video of the incident, and concluded that William Barr's talking with the site commanders on scene just prior to the clearance operation would certainly tend to discredit, if not altogether refute, the IG's review.
CNN's Jim Acosta, who was covering the White House at the time of the incident, was more unequivocal: "And I have to say, when I read through this report, it sounded as if this inspector general was auditioning to become the inspector general at Mar-A-Lago because this is almost a whitewash of what occurred on June First." Inevitably, Acosta was attacked in personal terms by perennial crank Glenn Greenwald, who conveniently forgot his prior belief that civil servants were an insidious Deep State seeking to bring down Trump. Now, he accused Acosta of "maligning the reputation of a well-respected career civil servant."
The slipshod IG review is highly significant for three reasons.
First, it is symptomatic of the systemic decline of both government capacity and government's role as a disinterested organ of public service. This decay been going on since at least the early 1980s, but the rot accelerated with frightening speed during the Trump presidency. The disastrous response to the COVID pandemic in 2020 was a flashing red light warning us that when competence and honesty decline, and when agencies are hollowed out, people get hurt.
Second, it is a sign that the U.S. news media never learned its lesson from its four-year brush with covering an authoritarian political party in power. It seems so eager to show everyone that it is "balanced" that it cannot even take the trouble to thoroughly read a document. A similar phenomenon has just recently occurred with the lab theory of the origin of coronavirus.
There is no credible evidence that the theory is true – yet. Just as the IG report "exonerated" Trump of a photo-op stunt, the media is all but declaring that the Trump administration's insistence that COVID came out of a Chinese lab "vindicates" them, although the administration had nearly a year to produce evidence and showed none.
Finally, we are now facing another scandal of huge proportions: the Trump administration's seizing the metadata of journalists, Democratic members of Congress, and their families. It hardly inspires confidence that after several months in office, Attorney General Merrick Garland did not at some point hold a press conference announcing the story and vowing that the heads of those responsible would roll. Instead, the New York Times broke the news.
It is likely that after some pressure from Congress, the Department of Justice will announce that it will investigate itself. But the prospect that the department's IG will produce a more credible report than that of the Interior Department just might be a triumph of hope over experience.