On Lafayette Square scandal, Trump's defense takes an odd turn

Even by Trump World standards, seeing peaceful protestors described as "terrorists" was unexpected.
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President Donald Trump walks back to the White House after appearing outside St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington on June 1, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

As Donald Trump's Lafayette Square scandal has unfolded this week, the president and his allies have struggled to come up with a compelling defense, and have generally preferred to try to rewrite the history of what the world saw on camera on Monday. But as Politico noted, Trump's posture toward the controversy took an unexpected turn late yesterday afternoon.

President Donald Trump tweeted out a letter Thursday that referred to a group of protesters as "terrorists," following their violent ouster from a park near the White House earlier this week. The letter is signed by Trump's former lawyer John Dowd and addressed to "Jim" in a probable reference to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

If Dowd's name sounds at all familiar, it's probably because he was a relatively high-profile member of Trump's legal defense team -- who argued, among other things, that the president is literally incapable of obstructing justice -- before stepping down in March 2018.

Two years later, Dowd apparently saw Mattis, a celebrated retired four-star general, denounce Trump's tactics, and felt compelled to write a letter referring to a group of protestors outside the White House as "terrorists." The lawyer added that "the peaceful protesters near Lafayette Park were not peaceful and are not real."

Some clarification is probably in order. The night before security forces removed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park in order to clear a path for a presidential photo-op, there was some genuine unrest in the immediate area. But the next afternoon, those in the public park had peaceably assembled.

Dowd -- and by extension, Trump -- apparently hopes to blur the lines, describing both groups of protestors as one big group of "terrorists." Indeed, according to the letter, the protestors weren't even "real," notwithstanding what plenty of journalists saw with their own eyes.

Even by the standards of Trump World, Dowd's letter is an embarrassment and a cringe-worthy way for a president to respond to an escalating controversy.

Trump will likely say that he didn't personally refer to American protestors as "terrorists"; he merely promoted a letter that called American protestors "terrorists." The president's tweet on the matter said he thought Dowd's nonsense "would be of interest to the American People," adding, "Read it!"

It's like a clumsy "retweets do not equal endorsements" line that obviously doesn't deserve to be taken seriously given the relevant context.

In related news on the Lafayette Square scandal:

* A civil-liberties lawsuit was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the Trump administration violated protestors' constitutional rights.

* Attorney General Bill Barr, who was reportedly responsible for ordering the removal of the protestors from Lafayette Square, told reporters yesterday the incident was "entirely appropriate." His comments came soon after Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) called for the attorney general's resignation.

* Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has filed a request with the Justice Department Inspector General's office, requesting an investigation into Barr and his use of federal law-enforcement personnel.

* Several dozen House Democrats, led by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), are seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the controversy.

* The White House's protestations notwithstanding, an Associated Press examination found that administration security forces did, in fact, use tear gas when clearing out Lafayette Square for Trump's photo-op. Similarly, a local news crew found tear-gas canisters at the scene of the incident.