In an exclusive interview, National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco blows the whistle on Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Church, shedding new light on the operation to clear protesters from Lafayette Square on June 1. DeMarco’s story and others appear in a VICE TV documentary, “The Photo Op.”
It was a Friday night when the text came in. Adam DeMarco, a major in the D.C. National Guard, was drinking beers with three old friends in his apartment overlooking the Potomac River. The Guard had been working on COVID response in the district for months, and it was the first time they’d hung out since the pandemic started. Now, in a sudden change of plans, his commanding officer was reassigning his unit to deal with civil unrest near the White House.
Protesters angry over the killing of George Floyd were filling the streets, demanding an end to racist policing. As the Guard members were thrust into the scrum, they struggled to adapt to the new operation, said DeMarco, describing it as a “shitshow.” Over the course of several nights, at least a half dozen Guard members were injured—one with a bad concussion. “I was livid,” DeMarco said. “I wanted to rip somebody’s head off.”
It was exactly this kind of rage and adrenaline, he said, that fed the mood he and other law enforcement officers felt as they were called in to support the U.S. Park Police on the day of Trump’s infamous photo op in front of the historic St. John’s Church. It felt, he said, like he was going into battle.
He wasn’t the only one in the mood for war.
President Trump had spent at least part of his Friday night in the White House bunker, as protesters kept vigil outside. In the days that followed, the president, perhaps humiliated, was threatening the use of the Insurrection Act—a show of force rarely invoked against the American people.
“What people don’t realize is how close the president of the United States came to enacting the Insurrection Act.”
“What people don’t realize is how close the president of the United States came to enacting the Insurrection Act,” said DeMarco. “That’s the scary part. The 82nd Airborne was on standby,” he said. “Some of my buddies were at Pope Airfield waiting to get on a C-17 [transport aircraft] to come to D.C.”
The Secretary of Defense understood the implications of the Insurrection Act—and also that if he rushed thousands of Guards into the city, he could stave off such a move, said DeMarco.
The optics were impactful: “The generic demonstrator who’s there, they don’t know the difference. They just know that the U.S. military is out here now and that we’re in charge. And that sends a very chilling message to your average American citizen,” DeMarco said.
It wasn’t just an uptick in bodies—weapons were being ordered into the city too.
At noon on June 1, an order was given to forward-deploy his unit’s M4 rifles, said DeMarco. The cache is typically stored in a secure arms room at Fort Belvoir, 15 miles from D.C. His unit was ordered to move those guns to the DC Armory, near the center of the city. And, via email, the Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region was inquiring about the availability of Long-Range Acoustic Devices and an Active Denial System; basically powerful sonic and heat-ray-emitting weapons designed to repel crowds. Neither, he said, were available.
By the time he and the 250 other Guards showed up at the White House, —around 5:45 p.m., they were ready for anything.
“I’m in full kit. I’ve got my SAPI [bulletproof] plates on. I’ve got a radio. I feel like back in Iraq—like that adrenaline I’m feeling is something that you only feel when you’re going on a patrol,” DeMarco said. “I’m walking right by the West Wing of the White House…and I’m going into Lafayette Square and I feel like I’m going into battle.”
“In the military, we are very ingrained by doctrine. So when you start using doctrinal terms for domestic unrest, we immediately start assessing things in terms of combat,” said DeMarco. “We start looking at people not as people but as enemy combatants.” This was being encouraged, DeMarco said, at the highest levels in the days following George Floyd’s killing, as protests spread throughout the country.
The leaked conversation of Trump discussing plans with state governors on the morning of June 1 underscores that point, as it was sprinkled with terms like “dominate the streets” and “battle space,” used not just by the president but also by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the Attorney General Bill Barr.
But the scene DeMarco walked into on Lafayette Square that evening well before a 7 p.m. citywide curfew, looked more like a picture-book peaceful protest, he said.
Almost immediately, DeMarco was confused. So confused, he said, that he double-checked the orders by drawing a sketch of the operation and then running it by the Park Police. The 250 Guards had been tasked with holding a static line behind police officers, who planned to put up a fence around Lafayette Square. A job, given the peaceful nature of the crowd, that seemed incongruous with the battle he’d prepared for.
At 6:32 p.m. in a sudden surge of extreme force, police officers started launching pepper balls and smoke canisters into the crowd, and the scene devolved into chaos.
VICE obtained the complete radio transmission of the operation recorded by the Arlington County Police Department, which was assisting the U.S. Park Police. Those recordings start to fill in the details on the law enforcement side.
Then, at 6:32 p.m., the chilling order comes through: “Go, go, go, go!”
The “grenadiers” are ordered to the front of the park at 5:32 p.m. Between 6:05 and 6:14 p.m., less than 20 minutes before they fired tear gas, law enforcement noted the presence of several children in the crowd. At 6:29 p.m., the line is ordered forward but told not to surge just yet. Then, at 6:32 p.m., the chilling order comes through: “Go, go, go, go!”
What unfolded between 6:32 p.m. and 7:11 p.m., when Trump walked back to the White House after his now-infamous photo op holding a Bible in front of the church, is the subject of at least one lawsuit. In the days that followed, military leaders and others, including DeMarco, began to distance themselves from what went down in those 39 minutes.
Others held firm. When Park Police Chief Gregory Monahan testified before Congress on June 28, one of his key points was that three warnings had been given to protesters to depart the square, and that, critically, they had been given by a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD.
But DeMarco says it didn’t happen. “Even if a freight train was going right through the middle of the protests, an LRAD would cut above that sound,” he said. Reaching up to 150 decibels—essentially jet engine-level volume—it’s not a device you can ignore, he explained.
“With all due respect to [Monahan], he’s lying,” said DeMarco. “The incident commander gave the order to disperse 50 yards from the protesters, about 30 yards from where I was standing, which was 20 yards from the demonstrators. To me, it was barely audible. And in no way could they have expected a crowd of about 2,000 rightfully angry and loud, peaceful protesters to be able to react to that.”
“[The announcements] were given three times, but they weren’t given by a military-grade sound system,” said DeMarco. “It was given by the incident commander, via a megaphone that was placed on a park bench near the statue of President [Andrew] Jackson.”
U.S. Park Police, in a written response to VICE News, stand by Monahan’s testimony that an LRAD was used, starting with the first of three announcements at 6:23 p.m.
The question of how exactly the tactical order to clear peaceful protesters evolved is still a mystery. During his testimony to Congress, DeMarco declined to speculate on who gave the order. But “as a civilian, with my own ability to exercise my First Amendment rights,” DeMarco said, “my conclusion is that the order to clear out Lafayette Square and the manner in which to do it was directed solely by Attorney General Bill Barr.”
“The Attorney General came out and saw that Lafayette Square had not been cleared. He told the Park Police to clear it immediately. What he specifically said, we’ll never know. But I can tell you that the Park Police took that order, and in their own way, said by any means necessary,” DeMarco said.
Attorney General Barr’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE News. A U.S. Park Police spokesperson, via email, referred VICE back to Monahan’s June 28 testimony, repeating statements that neither Barr nor anyone from the White House had made the order.
Fueled by the adrenaline, DeMarco said he was still in battle mode by sunset. It wasn’t until he posed for his own photo that he said he had a reality check. “I’m standing in the middle of 16th Street. The president has already departed. I’m in-between the Hay Adams Hotel and St. John’s Church. And I’m standing there, and I have my helmet off, and I’ve got my, you know, ballistic vest on. It was kind of like something we would do on a deployment, like after a successful mission,” he said.
“Then I looked around and saw the tear gas canisters and 16th Street. I saw the water bottles. I saw, you know, the trash, the graffiti, the boarded-up windows. And you still could hear the remnants of people yelling, because they were nearby, and then the helicopters flying over. And I realized that I was not in Kirkuk; I was in Washington, D.C. And that’s when I snapped back to reality,” DeMarco said. “You know, what the fuck?”
“I will forever remember standing in the middle of the street, in the capital of the free world, and feeling like we had just invaded.”