WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr on Thursday defended President Trump’s photo opportunity in front of a historic church this week amid widespread condemnation over the authorities’ violent clearing of protesters and clergy from the area just before.
“The president is the head of the executive branch and the chief executive of the nation and should be able to walk outside the White House, and walk across the street to visit the church,” Mr. Barr said at a news conference with other top Justice Department officials.
“I don’t necessarily view that as a political act,” he added. “I think it was entirely appropriate.”
In the minutes before Mr. Trump strode across Lafayette Square in front of the White House on Monday night to pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, officers in riot gear rushed to move people out of his path using smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray.
Once next to the church, Mr. Trump held aloft a borrowed Bible and posed with aides and cabinet members, including the attorney general. “I think it was appropriate for us to go over with him,” Mr. Barr said.
Mr. Barr said he had ordered the park to be cleared, in an effort to create more space between the White House and the protests, well before he knew that Mr. Trump intended to visit the church. “There was no correlation between our tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block and the president’s going over to the church,” Mr. Barr said.
He and other department officials said the strong federal law enforcement presence in the park was in response to looters, vandals and others who committed violent acts during and around weekend protests over the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody.
Mr. Barr and the other officials emphasized that most of the people gathered at demonstrations across the country in recent days were peaceful protesters and attributed much of the violence and illegal activity to extremist groups intent on sowing chaos. Mr. Barr mentioned only antifa, a loose collective of anti-fascists associated with the far left, and the similarly loosely organized boogaloo, a far-right group that is seen as working to bring about a race war.
“It’s important to point out the witch’s brew that we have of extremist individuals and groups that are involved,” Mr. Barr said. “There were a variety of people, a variety of ideological persuasions.”
He and Christopher A. Wray, the director of the F.B.I., said that federal prosecutors and the bureau were building cases against people, and that the federal government had made 51 arrests in connection with violent rioting.
The officials tried to draw a bright line between peaceful protest, which they said they supported as a protected right under the Constitution, and lawless acts of arson, looting and rioting.
Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Barr to lead a federal law enforcement response to the protests on Monday, days after the president retreated to a White House bunker amid tense standoffs between protesters and Secret Service police.
Mr. Barr has prepared for more tension, temporarily granting agents from the Bureau of Prisons and the Drug Enforcement Administration the power to enforce federal criminal laws, which includes the power to conduct interviews and searches and make arrests.
Granting the power to make arrests to more federal officers is part of the administration’s preparations for the possibility of more chaos this weekend, one law enforcement official said, citing chatter online and elsewhere about possibly more violent demonstrations in the nation’s capital. The official compared it to the violence of this past weekend when protesters engaged in standoffs with officers while some whose links to the protests were unclear vandalized federal property and looted upscale stores.
But Mr. Barr’s decision to confer more power on agents who work for the Justice Department comes as protests in Washington have been relatively calm. On Wednesday evening, throngs of demonstrators walked peacefully past lines of federal officers in riot gear from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and on Thursday the city removed a curfew that had been in place.