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Lafayette Square protesters were subjected to "excessive use of force," National Guard commander will testify

Joint Chiefs chairman regrets church photo op
Joint Chiefs chairman apologizes for church photo op with President Trump 03:54

National Guard commander Adam DeMarco will testify before a House committee Tuesday that "excessive use of force" was used against protesters in Lafayette Square on June 1, refuting the attorney general's earlier assertions that force was justified. 

DeMarco, an Iraq veteran who now serves as a major in the D.C. National Guard, will be testifying Tuesday before the House Committee for Natural Resources, which is investigating the use of force on the protesters. According to a publicly released opening statement, DeMarco will say that what he witnessed was "deeply disturbing." 

"Having served in a combat zone, and understanding how to assess threat environments, at no time did I feel threatened by the protesters or assess them to be violent," DeMarco will say. 

On June 1, federal law enforcement officers and Park Police dispersed protesters from the park with pepper spray and smoke bombs just before President Trump walked to nearby St. John's Church. Attorney General Bill Barr, who accompanied Mr. Trump to the church, has defended the forcible removal of protesters, asserting that they had grown "increasingly unruly" and did not move back when asked. He said the move to expand the perimeter around the White House was planned well before the president's walk. 

US President Donald Trump leaves the White House on foot to go to St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.  BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

In DeMarco's view, "the use of force against demonstrators in the clearing operation was an unnecessary escalation of the use of force."

"From my observation, those demonstrators — our fellow American citizens —  were engaged in the peaceful expression of their First Amendment rights," DeMarco is expected to say.

Lafayette Square, located north of the White House, was one of the locations nationwide where protests erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Barr said that the demonstrations there escalated in intensity over three nights beginning on Friday, May 29, and peaked on Sunday, May 31, when demonstrators set several fires, damaged buildings and launched projectiles.

US Park Police stand watch inside Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020 as demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

On June 1, Mr. Trump gave a press conference in front of the White House about the protests and said he would deploy the military at demonstrations if they were not peaceful. Afterward, he walked to the church and briefly posed in front of St. John's with a Bible in hand and flanked by military officials and aides. The White House soon released photos and a video, raising questions about whether peaceful protesters had been removed to clear the way for a presidential photo opportunity. 

DeMarco's testimony is in line with comments by other military leaders. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, also accompanied Mr. Trump, and later said that he regretted taking part because it "created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis condemned the move, too. "Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict— between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part."  

Stefan Becket and Clare Hymes contributed to this report. 

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