DHS IG Refused To Probe Agency’s Actions During Now-Infamous Trump Photo-Op

President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St. John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
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April 20, 2021 12:22 p.m.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general refused recommendations by career staffers to probe the agency’s handling of protests at Lafayette Square and the spread of the coronavirus in its ranks, according to a Washington Post report on Tuesday.

Citing internal documents and two people familiar with his decision, the Post reported that Joseph Cuffari, the DHS’ inspector general, denied his staff’s recommendation to investigate the role the Secret Service played in the aggressive clearing of largely peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square last June for Trump’s infamous photo-op.

Cuffari’s investigators submitted a draft plan on June 10 to investigate whether the Secret Service violated its use-of-force policies in the June 1 clearing of Lafayette Square that involved the shooting of rubber bullets and spraying of chemical irritants at hundreds of protesters. At a June 18 meeting to discuss potential new investigations, Cuffari said the DHS inspector general determined that it would not investigate the Secret Service’s handling of the protests or clearing of the square. Cuffari reportedly suggested that Secret Service Director Jim Murray could look into the episode.

The forcible clearing of protesters at Lafayette Square last year culminated in then-President Trump and several other administration officials posing for a surprise photo-op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. It was during this photo shoot that Trump formalized his “law and order” approach to racial injustice and police brutality protesters, as people around the nation gathered to protest the police killing of George Floyd. At the time, Trump announced that he “strongly recommended” every governor deploy the National Guard to “dominate the streets,” just as federal police used tear gas and flash bangs to disperse an otherwise peaceful crowd gathered outside the White House.

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Additionally, Cuffari reportedly tried to limit an investigation into the extent of the Secret Service’s failure to comply with federal protocols that were implemented to detect and reduce the spread of COVID-19 within its workforce, according to records obtained by the Post. He ultimately scrapped the probe.

Trump, at the time, was repeatedly downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic with his refusal to adhere to public health measures, such as mask-wearing. The then-president was traveling and holding campaign events last year while hundreds of Secret Service officers contracted COVID-19 or were forced to quarantine after potential exposure.

Cuffari’s refusal to pursue the investigations were revealed in records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, and shared with the Post.

The DHS inspector general’s office has not investigated the Secret Service’s performance since the Obama administration.

Erica Paulson, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, told the Post in a statement that Cuffari prioritizes investigations based on a limited budget. Paulson said that Cuffari approves investigations that target the highest risks and are likely to have the greatest impact.

“Our office does not have the resources to approve every oversight proposal,” Paulson told the Post. “We have less than 400 auditors and inspectors to cover the entire Department of Homeland Security, an agency with almost half a million employees and contractors. Like all IGs, we have to make tough strategic decisions about how to best use our resources for greatest impact across the Department.”

Paulson added that regarding the requests for investigations into the forcible clearing of protesters at Lafayette Square and the spread of coronavirus within the Secret Service, the DHS “determined that resources would have a higher impact elsewhere.”

According to the Post, DHS inspector general staffers privately took issue with Cuffari’s seeming reluctance to launch investigations that could potentially be critical of Trump’s policies or actions. Cuffari was nominated by Trump and confirmed in 2019 after his previous work for two Republican Arizona governors, Jan Brewer and Doug Ducey.

Paulson denied the notion that Cuffari was reluctant towards holding the Trump administration accountable by pointing to DHS’ probes into its detention facilities, according to the Post.

News of Cuffari’s refusal to green light two proposed Secret Service investigations potentially adds to concerns surrounding the DHS inspector general’s oversight of the agency.

The House Committee on Homeland Security, whose chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) has expressed concerns over what he views as Cuffari’s failure to conduct thorough investigations, has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the inspector general’s oversight.

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