The Justice Department is calling on a federal judge to dismiss lawsuits filed against former President Donald Trump, former Attorney General William Barr, and other officials over the forceful removal of protesters from a park near the White House. The American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, other civil liberties groups, and individual protesters all accuse Trump and other senior officials in his administration of being responsible for the now-infamous events of June 1. But Trump and other officials are immune from civil lawsuits having to do with police action taken to protect the president, the DOJ lawyers said. Plus, the lawsuits should be tossed because Trump is out of office and the new administration is unlikely to repeat what happened last year considering President Joe Biden has a very different view of the racial justice movement than his predecessor.
There were more than 1,000 people at Lafayette Square on June 1 peacefully demonstrating the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis when suddenly law enforcement officers used aggressive force, including firing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd, to clear the area. Shortly thereafter, Trump had a photo op holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church. The lawsuits claim that Trump, Barr, and others “unlawfully conspired to violate” the rights of protesters.
Whatever the precedent may be for holding the president accountable for the actions of law enforcement, if the judge gives way to the DOJ request it would “authorize brutality with impunity” in the nation’s capital. Dropping the cases would make it impossible to hold officials accountable for similar offenses and the state-sponsored violence could escalate. Authorities “could have used live ammunition to clear the park, and nobody would have a claim against that as an assault on their constitutional rights,” said Scott Michelman, legal director for ACLU-D.C.
The government’s lawyers, though, argue that police acted to protect the president, which is a “paramount” interest of the government. U.S. District Judge Dabney L. Friedrich seemed open to the government’s arguments, asking at one point, “How do I get over the clear national security concern over the president’s safety?” But Randy M. Mastro, an attorney for the protesters, said that the national security defense appeared to be the latest in a long list of “shifting explanations” that doesn’t help explain what happened, since no one argues the president was ever in danger. Looking at Trump’s tweets and public statements it is clear that “these protesters were targeted because of their viewpoint, their message, their speech,” Mastro said. Friedrich promised rulings “in the near future.”
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