Federal investigators believe foreign agents are helping foment dissension and inflaming the violence that has erupted in cities across the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Attorney General William P. Barr said Thursday.
Standing with the leaders of his department’s law enforcement agencies, Mr. Barr vowed justice will be done for Mr. Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. He acknowledged the need for a broader conversation about race and policing, and explained his own decisions in ordering protesters out of Lafayette Park in front of the White House on Monday.
He said those decisions had nothing to do with President Trump’s walk to historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, and were instead the result of a weekend of violence that saw protesters pull up the pavement and hurl pieces of it at Secret Service agents and other law enforcement officers protecting the White House.
The federal officials gathered with Mr. Barr said they’re tracking the violence nationwide, pointing to investigations into more than 800 arsons and 76 explosive devices at protests. They described the violent actors behind them, from Antifa to the far-right Boogaloo movement.
Mr. Barr called it a “witch’s brew,” and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said different groups are involved in different cities.
Underpinning some of the dissension are the same foreign actors who have tried to meddle in American politics in the past, the officials said — though they didn’t name specific countries nor say exactly what they’ve seen.
Mr. Barr said they are “playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.”
“I believe we have evidence that some foreign hackers and groups associated with foreign governments are focused on this particular situation we have here and exacerbate it every way they can,” he said.
Mr. Wray said it’s the kind of behavior they’ve seen before.
“It is, unfortunately, not unusual for foreign actors to choose to amplify events in this country to sow divisiveness and discord, particularly through the use of state associated media, which provides a bullhorn to amplify and gin up more controversy than exists,” he said.
Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer — now fired and charged with second-degree murder — has sparked massive protests.
Mr. Barr, who was attorney general during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, said excessive force is generally limited to a “distinct minority” of police officers.
“Federal civil rights laws address willful use of excessive force and those that engage in that kind of activity I think are a distinct minority,” he said. “I think the overwhelming number of police officers try conscientiously to use appropriate and reasonable force.”
Mr. Barr said the “large preponderance” of protests have been peaceful, but “there are extremist agitators who are hijacking the protests to pursue their own separate and violent agenda.”
In the nation’s capital, massive unrest over the weekend led to vandalism at buildings near the White House and a fire at historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
By Monday, the city had imposed a 7 p.m. curfew.
That day, federal officers, who patrol the city’s large amount of federal territory, pushed protesters out of Lafayette Park, which stands in between St. John’s and the White House.
The decision has drawn scrutiny from Capitol Hill, where Democrats said Mr. Trump turned the Secret Service into a tool of fascism in dispersing the protests.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, demanded an investigation.
“We are concerned about the increased militarization and lack of clarity that may increase chaos,” she said, demanding a list of the federal agencies that have been involved in policing the city’s protests. “Congress and the American people need to know who is in charge, what is the chain of command, what is the mission, and by what authority is the National Guard from other states operating in the capital.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat, said Mr. Barr, who oversaw the clearing of Lafayette Park, orchestrated an “assault on our citizens’ constitutional rights of free expression and peaceful assembly.”
Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Trump administration over the incident, saying it violated the constitutional rights of the demonstrators.
The lawsuit, which was filed in a D.C. federal court and names Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr as defendants, accuses officers of attacking protesters without warning and using excessive force in “unprovoked criminal attack.”
Mr. Barr said some protesters had become violent and buildings had been set on fire and vandalized the night before.
Rioters used crowbars to dig out pavement and throw it at federal officers, he said, resulting in 114 injuries. Twenty-two of the officers were hospitalized with serious head injuries or concussions, he said.
He said they realized that if the protesters were allowed to be at Lafayette Park or on H Street, they would be in throwing range of officers guarding the White House, so they pushed the perimeter back a block.
Mr. Barr also told reporters that protesters were asked three times to move back before the authorities began to push them back. He said the rioting was interfering with the government’s functions.
Officials have said they used pepper balls and other less-lethal means, not tear gas, to disperse the crowd.
Mr. Barr said authorities have shrunk the protective perimeter after mostly peaceful protests the last several days. The attorney general also defended Mr. Trump’s decision to walk across the park to the church, where he stood holding a Bible.
“The president should be able to walk outside the White House and walk across the street,” he said. “I don’t view it as a political act, I think it is entirely appropriate for him to do that.
“There was no correlation between our tactical plan to move the perimeter out by one block and the president going over to the church.”