President Trump tweets unhinged letter calling “phony” peaceful protesters “terrorists”

The protesters "were not peaceful and are not real," the bizarre letter from his Russia probe lawyer falsely claims

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 5, 2020 11:08AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump holds up a bible in front of boarded up St John's Episcopal church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump holds up a bible in front of boarded up St John's Episcopal church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump shared a bizarre false letter from his former personal attorney calling peaceful protesters attacked by authorities at Lafayette Park in Washington "terrorists."

By all credible news accounts, Monday's protests outside the White House were peaceful before authorities tear-gassed protesters before the city's curfew began to clear the way for Trump to stage a photo-op in front of nearby St. John's Church. However, Trump has tried to spin the incident after a growing number of military officials, evangelical leaders, civil rights groups and even members of his own party criticized the dangerous stunt.

There was no "tear gas" but rather a tear-inducing chemical agent, Trump's team has argued. The protesters that day were not "peaceful," because other protesters during previous nights were not all peaceful, Trump and his aides have argued. He wasn't taken to the White House bunker for security reasons, he was simply there for an "inspection," Trump claimed this week

Then the president on Thursday tweeted a letter from John Dowd, his former attorney in the Russia investigation, which baselessly referred to peaceful protesters as "terrorists."

"The phony protesters near Lafayette were not peaceful and are not real," the letter claims, citing no evidence. "They are terrorists using idle hate filled students to burn and destroy. They were abusing and disrespecting the police when the police were preparing the area for the 1900 curfew."

The Modern Military Association of America, an advocacy group for LGBTQ military members and veterans, condemned the tweet.

"Donald Trump just crossed a very serious line that demands swift and forceful condemnation by every Member of Congress," Air Force veteran Jennifer Dane, who heads the group, said. "Promoting a letter that labels American citizens peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights as 'terrorists' is an egregious breach of his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Now more than ever, it is absolutely crucial that Trump be held accountable for his reckless actions."

Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called Dowd's letter "abhorrent and a completely false characterization of the peacefully assembled demonstrators who were dispersed through state-sanctioned violence at the hands of government officials."

"It is remarkable," she told Politico, "that President Trump objects so vehemently to those speaking out against racial and police violence while embracing gun-toting activists who take siege of government buildings and violent white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville."

Dowd's letter appeared to be addressed to former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who issued rare criticism of Trump earlier this week.

Mattis said in a statement that the U.S. "must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate.'"

"When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside," he said. "At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society."

Trump responded to the statement by falsely claiming that he had given Mattis his longtime "Mad Dog" nickname and falsely claiming that he fired him as defense secretary.

The false claims led former White House chief of staff John Kelly to publicly hit back at the president.

"The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation," Kelly told The Washington Post. "The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused."

Trump responded to Kelly by falsely claiming that the chief of staff "didn't know I was going to fire" Mattis. Mattis resigned in protest of Trump's withdrawal from Syria in a blistering resignation letter.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, came out in support of Mattis and suggested she may not vote for Trump's re-election after the president's military threats.

"I thought General Mattis' words were true, and honest, and necessary and overdue," Murkowski told reporters, adding that she was "struggling" with whether to vote for Trump.

Trump responded to Murkowski by threatening to campaign against her in two years.

"Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don't care, I'm endorsing. If you have a pulse, I'm with you!" he wrote.

Democrats have roundly condemned Monday's stunt.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., requested that the Justice Department inspector general investigate Attorney General William Barr's order to clear protesters from Lafayette Park.

Dozens of House Democrats called for a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate the incident.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., called for Barr to resign over the stunt.

On Thursday, a coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU and Black Lives Matter D.C. filed a lawsuit against Trump, Barr and other federal officials over the assault on protesters.

"The president's shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked, and frankly criminal attack on protesters because he disagreed with their views shakes the foundation of our nation's constitutional order," Scott Michelman, the legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said. "And when the nation's top law enforcement officer becomes complicit in the tactics of an autocrat, it chills protected speech for all of us."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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