It’s a scene we’ve encountered many times before: The White House offers a problematic denial to explain a controversial event, and then quickly contradicts itself. Firing James B. Comey wasn’t about the Russia investigation, until it was. President Trump didn’t disclose classified information to Russians in the Oval Office, until he did. Etc. Etc.
Usually, it’s President Trump ripping the lid off it. This time, it was Attorney General William P. Barr.
Barr sat for a lengthy interview Monday night with Fox News’s Bret Baier, during which he very notably contradicted the White House’s claim that Trump hadn’t retreated to the White House bunker in the face of protests recently.
The confirmation was merely the latest example of the White House’s dodgy and false narratives colliding with one another.
Reports of Trump’s bunker retreat surfaced last week, when the New York Times reported and others including The Washington Post confirmed that Trump had retreated to it on the night of May 29 during particularly heated scenes on the streets of Washington, D.C. This is a narrative that Trump didn’t like — for obvious reasons — and he quickly set out to deny it.
Trump at first suggested he hadn’t gone to the bunker, but then confirmed he did — but only for an “inspection.”
“Well, it was a false report. I wasn’t [there],” he said. He then added: “I went down during the day and I was there for a tiny little short period of time and it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day.”
The denial was particularly notable given that White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had been asked about the reporting at a White House briefing and hadn’t called it into question.
And now Barr has effectively confirmed the reporting.
“You know, on [June 1], we were reacting to three days of extremely violent demonstrations. Right across from the White House, a lot of injuries to police officers, arson,” Barr told Baier. “The things were so bad the Secret Service recommended the president go down to the bunker. We can’t have that in our country.”
It will be interesting to see whether we get a correction from Barr. Perhaps he will say he was just uncritically passing along what had been reported. Or maybe he’ll say he wasn’t confirming Trump actually went to the bunker (though that would be a very remarkable coincidence). But it’s very difficult to square his comments with Trump’s claim that this happened during the day — when Trump said there was “no problem” — and that it was for an inspection — given Barr said it was a Secret Service request.
Barr’s flub emanates from two very contradictory and suspect narratives that the White House is peddling. On the one hand, Trump is suggesting that he wasn’t actually retreating in the face of unrest; on the other hand the White House has trying to argue that the scenes in Washington were so bad that they necessitated the violent advance on the protesters on the evening of June 1 that just so happened to precede Trump’s visit to a vandalized church for a photo op.
Barr played a significant role in the latter, having visited Lafayette Square in the moments before the protesters were pushed out and ordered the advance. Accounts of the scene suggested it was overwhelmingly peaceful — and an extensive Washington Post reconstruction of the scene released around the time of Barr’s interview Monday bears that out.
Despite this, Barr and the White House have clung to the idea that the crackdown was necessary — as is the extensive security perimeter that has been set up outside the square in the days since. To the extent the protests were indeed peaceful, that casts these measures as overzealous. And what better way to reinforce how ugly these scenes were than to note that the Secret Service requested that the president needed to retreat to a bunker for his own safety.
Barr wants to defend his role in clearing the protesters, and so he’s understandably erred on the side of playing up the supposed dangers that existed just outside the White House. Unfortunately for him, in doing so, he contradicted something the president himself had claimed about the scene.
Now he’s in the position of either correcting himself — despite sources continuing to confirm that Trump had indeed retreated to the bunker that evening because of the unrest — or leaving it out there as having confirmed a scene that cuts to the core of Trump’s attempts to portray himself as an impervious and tough president in the face of violent protesters.
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