“Dereliction of duty”: Trump’s DHS IG blocked probe into assault on Lafayette Sq. protest

Joseph Cuffari rejected career investigators' plan to investigate whether agency violated use-of-force policies

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published April 20, 2021 7:04PM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general blocked an investigation into the role of the Secret Service in clearing Black Lives Matter protesters from Lafayette Square ahead of former President Donald Trump's controversial photo-op last June, according to internal documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight.

Joseph Cuffari, a former adviser to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey who was appointed by Trump in 2019, rejected career staffers' recommendation to investigate the Secret Service's involvement in the June 1, 2020, incident, when federal law enforcement used tear gas to forcibly clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House so Trump could take a photo holding up a Bible in front of a church that had been damaged by fire during an earlier protest. Department investigators argued that the probe was "essential" in upholding the duty of the office, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the documents.

The documents show that investigators pushed to probe whether the Secret Service violated its use-of-force policies in the clearing, noting that hundreds of protesters were hit with rubber bullets and chemical irritants. Cuffari shot down the proposed investigation a week later, suggesting that the Secret Service could review the episode themselves and taking investigators "aback," according to the report.

Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general, called the decision a "dereliction of duty."

"IGs should make these decisions based on the importance of the matter," he said on Twitter, "not on whether an investigation might offend the President who appointed them."

Noah Bookbinder, president of the government watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, called for Congress to investigate Cuffari's handling of the matter.

Erica Paulson, a spokeswoman for Cuffari, who remains in charge of the office, told the Post that Cuffari rejected the proposal because he determined that the U.S. Park Police played a larger role in the clearing.

"DHS OIG closely coordinated with Justice and Interior OIGs, who were each planning reviews given the greater presence and participation of their agencies on that day,"  she said in a statement.

Cuffari likewise blocked an investigation into whether Secret Service had violated federal protocols aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus among employees. Hundreds of Secret Service officers were infected or forced to quarantine after potential exposure, according to the Post, largely because Trump kept traveling to campaign events and holding large gatherings despite the pandemic. Career officials argued that the investigation was necessary because the situation put fellow employees and officials at risk.

Despite the recommendations, the inspector general's office has not investigated any specific Secret Service issues since the Obama administration. The Post previously reported that the number of all investigations under Cuffari had plummeted to the lowest number in nearly two decades.

Paulson told the Post that the decisions were made based on budgetary reasons and risk assessment, and that in both cases it was "determined that resources would have higher impact elsewhere."

"Our office does not have the resources to approve every oversight proposal," Paulson said. "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."

But staffers inside the office have complained that Cuffari has been "skittish" about investigations that could "potentially criticize the president's policies or actions," sources told the Post.

"Cuffari pulled his punches on exactly the type of sensitive reviews his office was created to perform," Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, told the Post. "It doesn't look like he's an independent watchdog."

Paulson disputed the claim, arguing that Cuffari had investigated controversial DHS detention facilities used in the Trump administration and other policies.

"Evidence that IG Cuffari does not shy away from politically sensitive topics can be found in numerous DHS OIG published reports, as well as ongoing projects," she said.

Internal documents show, however, that investigators raised alarm over the rising number of coronavirus infections among Secret Service employees and urged an investigation into whether the agency was taking the necessary steps to protect its workers. Cuffari instead suggested limiting the probe to reviewing how the spread of infections was affecting the agency's investigative work rather than its protective assignments, according to the report, even though most of the infections were among Secret Service agents who were compelled to travel in order to secure public spaces for Trump's events. The probe was ultimately scrapped entirely.

Paulson said that the office has "numerous investigations, inspections and audits" that have addressed the risk of coronavirus spread inside DHS.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has been critical of Cuffari's handling of investigations and has called him to testify at a hearing on Wednesday. Thompson previously joined Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., last July in calling for Cuffari and the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate the Lafayette Square incident.

"The legal basis for this use of force has never been explained," the lawmakers said in a letter to Cuffari. "The [Trump] Administration's insistence on deploying these forces over the objections of state and local authorities suggest that these tactics have little to do with public safety, but more to do with political gamesmanship."

Thompson later criticized Cuffari's handling of investigations into the 2018 deaths of two young migrant children in the custody of Customs and Border Patrol, arguing that the office's report was "inaccurate and misleading," had mischaracterized the cause of death and ignored key details.

"The shortcomings in the OIG's reports on the children who died in CBP custody give me great concern about the ability of the OIG to carry out significant oversight," Thompson said in a letter to Cuffari.

A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Committee said Wednesday's hearing would focus on the new documents.

"We depend on the DHS OIG to hold DHS accountable to the public and Congress," the spokesperson said on Twitter. "For over a year, Chairman [Thompson] has been concerned about the office's willingness to conduct in-depth examinations of sensitive topics."

By Igor Derysh

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

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