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In tense hearing, lawmakers question use of force to clear path for Trump photo-op

UPDATED: Mon., June 29, 2020

  (Michael Reynolds/Associated Press)
(Michael Reynolds/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – In a heated hearing on Capitol Hill on Monday, House lawmakers heard testimony from a protester and a journalist injured by police clearing a path for President Donald Trump’s controversial photo-op outside a historic church near the White House on June 1.

U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops used smoke canisters, chemical irritants, explosives, projectiles, batons and horses to clear protesters from Lafayette Square, a park between the White House and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Trump and an entourage including Attorney General Bill Barr and Gen. Mark Milley, the country’s top military official, then stood in front of the church, where the president held up a Bible and posed for photos.

“Police started throwing tear gas and flash-bang grenades at us for no reason,” Kishon McDonald, a 39-year-old Navy veteran who joined the protest, told the panel. “We were retreating. We didn’t need any help retreating. Using weapons on us was ridiculous. It just made the situation dangerous. Even before the officers charged us or fired their weapons, we had been peaceful.”

The Park Police initially denied using tear gas before walking that claim back, conceding that officers deployed chemical irritants that cause tears.

McDonald is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by activists and civil liberties groups against Trump and other government officials for violating their civil rights, a fact that made the House Natural Resource Committee’s top GOP member, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, declare the hearing “really good political theater.”

A Park Police official agreed to testify if the hearing were held later, Bishop said, but the Democratic majority declined to delay it. The session was testy at times, with both parties accusing the other of hypocrisy and using the chairman’s gavel as a political cudgel when in the majority.

The committee, which is charged with oversight of the National Park Service and Park Police, also heard from a constitutional law expert and the Episcopal bishop whose diocese includes St. John’s.

The church, built in 1816 and known as the “Church of the Presidents” for hosting every commander-in-chief since James Madison, was vandalized and a fire was set in its basement amid protests the night before Trump’s photo-op. But the Bishop, Rev. Mariann Budde, took a firm stand in support of the protesters in Monday’s hearing and called the actions of police “antithetical to the teachings of the Bible and what we stand for as a church.”

“In the end, buildings can be rebuilt, windows can be replaced, pillars can be repainted,” Budde said. “We can never bring back the lives that have been lost due to horrific police violence. These deaths are the true outrage.”

Most witnesses described the June 1 protest as noisy but peaceful, and police used force roughly 30 minutes before a curfew was set to begin.

Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher, who represents Idaho’s 1st District including North Idaho, played a video of attacks on police in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

“I’ve had the opportunity to travel, work, be in a lot of nations around this world, a lot of them where rule of law is not enjoyed,” Fulcher said, “and generally speaking their lack of prosperity reflects that. That’s why this entire situation is so incredibly troubling to me.”

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law scholar from George Washington University and the Republicans’ sole witness, made the case that the police action to clear the park was probably lawful, but the means used to do so may not have been.

When Rep. T.J. Cox, D-Calif., asked Turley if the acts in Fulcher’s video were relevant to what happened at Lafayette Square, the lawyer said, “I don’t think a court would take that into consideration.”

The panel also heard from Amelia Brace, a television journalist for Australia’s Seven News, who was struck by rubber bullets and a baton, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, while broadcasting live and shouting “media.” The Australian government condemned the assault and asked its embassy to investigate.

“As a reporter I have no interest in becoming the story,” Brace said, “but over recent weeks many of us have been left with no choice. I’ve been shocked to see how many journalists have been attacked, beaten and detained just for doing their jobs. Covering protests does carry unavoidable risks, but the media’s role is essential. We don’t just have a right to be there. We have an obligation.”

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