Trump calls tear gas reports 'fake news,' but protesters' eyes burned just the same

The White House denies it was used to clear protesters before his photo op.

To counter criticism of his Monday photo op outside St. John's Church, President Donald Trump and his allies have seized on news reports that police used 'tear gas" to clear what appeared to be peaceful protesters so he could make his dramatic walkover from the White House, branding them "fake news."

"They didn't use tear gas," President Trump told Fox News Radio on Wednesday.

"It's said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on," said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump 2020 communications director. "We now know through the U.S. Park Police that neither they, nor any of their law enforcement partners, used tear gas to quell rising violence."

"Every news organization which reported the tear gas lie should immediately correct or retract its erroneous reporting," he added.

But the U.S. Park Police, while saying in a statement Tuesday that "no tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park," also said it had deployed "pepper balls" and "smoke canisters."

And photos and videos showed what appeared to be -- or could be mistaken for -- tear gas rising above the clash between police and protesters, and protesters complaining of burning eyes and throats.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "tear gas" isn't a specific chemical compound but a blanket term for chemical agents used for riot control that cause temporary respiratory distress. Compounds including mace and pepper spray fit the CDC's definition.

"Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as "tear gas") are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin," its website reads.

The American Civil Liberties Union and demonstrators have filed a lawsuit against President Trump and some of his Cabinet members for allegedly violating their constitutional rights when clearing the area, after the advocacy group called on Congress earlier in the week to investigate the use of "politically-motivated and life-threatening use of indiscriminate weapons."

The complaint filed in D.C. District Court Thursday includes several mentions of Trump's rhetoric regarding demonstrations and civil unrest and a detailed timeline of the night's events.

It also details injuries allegedly sustained by several people who attended, including cuts, scrapes and bruises.

Meanwhile, hosts on Fox News, one of the president's preferred news media outlets, have spent the days since the controversial photo op shifting defenses to fit the president's narrative.

On Tuesday, Fox anchor Jesse Watters said, "So they threw some smoke bombs out and pushed them back -- wow, Armageddon, really?" and later that evening host Laura Ingraham denounced others' reporting entirely that "tear gas" had been used.

"It's the perfect distraction," said John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security, now an ABC News contributor. "Now they're going to make the argument the media misreported the event -- but that's simply not true."

The president at the same time capitalized on the opportunity to call out "fake news" for using the term, retweeting a Molly Hemingway article from the Federalist he called "a must read" titled: "Media Falsely Claimed Violent Riots Were Peaceful And That Tear Gas Was Used Against Rioters" along with several tweets saying, "FAKE NEWS!"

Cohen, who served under the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, say semantics shouldn't obscure what's most significant.

"Whether it was tear gas, smoke or pepper balls, those are important facts, but the real issue is, why was force used to remove individuals who by all video accounts were peacefully engaging in constitutionally protected activities on public lands," he said. "People shouldn't be distracted by whether it was actually tear gas or a combination of other irritants, the main question here is, who gave the order, why was it done and was it legal."

"All the video evidence that we've seen to date suggests that this was a peaceful protest. It was law enforcement actions that escalated the incident into a destructive and violent activity," Cohen noted.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany doubled down on the administration's messaging Wednesday, insisting that neither tear gas nor rubber bullets were used on protesters in Lafayette Park but did say "the appropriate action was taken" in self-defense.

"No one was tear gassed," McEnany said. "They used the minimal force that they could to ensure that that situation was safe, to ensure St. John's Church would not burn a second night in a row."

But while the White House said the perimeter was "expanded" by police in order to enforce the curfew and the situation escalated in "self defense," Washington, D.C. Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser said "munitions" were used on "peaceful protesters" nearly 30 minutes before the curfew time she had set -- calling it "shameful!'

Multiple journalists on the ground at the protests, including a team from ABC News, have also reported that protesters were demonstrating peacefully and chanting without violence "but police started using flash bangs and gas against the peaceful protestors to clear the street regardless."

While the Trump campaign was pressuring media outlets to issue retractions and corrections, according to watchdog website Media Matters, others in Trump's Cabinet were navigating the fall-out.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, facing backlash for posing with the president in front of a church, insisted Wednesday that he was "apolitical" but also went out of his way to emphasize that Guard troops in the park "did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas into the crowd as reported."

Cohen, a former police officer in Los Angles county, said semantics are beside the point.

"The underlying principle that governs all of this is law enforcement can only use the minimal force necessary in order to mitigate a threat to them. There was no threat here," Cohen said. "Those people were peacefully exercising their constitutionally protected rights of assembly and speech. It's the responsibility of law enforcement to protect their ability to do so safely."

"At best the actions of these officers were tone deaf," Cohen added. "Worst case is that they were illegal."

ABC News Ben Gittleson, Jordyn Phelps and Jack Date contributed to this report.