‘This can’t be happening’: An oral history of 48 surreal, violent, biblical minutes in Washington. Inside the mayhem as police moved in to clear peaceful protests outside the White House. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protesters outside the White House on June 1 as Trump threatened to deploy the military to American cities. (By Dan Zak, Monica Hesse, Ben Terris, Maura Judkis and Travis M. Andrews at the Washington Post.)
On Monday evening, over the course of 48 minutes, Donald Trump put on a show that may have changed America, yet again. It involved an overture to the nation, a physical attack on Americans and a Bible. It began suddenly, in the Rose Garden, with a statement about “law and order” and “dangerous thugs.” The president promised justice for the family of George Floyd, whose death in the custody of Minneapolis police last week triggered nationwide protests, looting and violence, and a roiling debate about who we are and what we hope to become.
As the president declared that he was an “ally” of peaceful protesters, those peaceful protesters were violently dispersed to make way for his walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square. “Our greatest days lie ahead,” Trump said. What happened during those 48 minutes convinced some people that he is right, and others that he is very wrong.
Eventually there will be a detailed accounting of what actually happened, and how, and why. For now, in the midst of the confusion, here is a first draft of history in miniature, in minutes — an oral history of 6:30 to 7:18 p.m. on June 1, 2020.
AUTHORS: Interviews and statements were edited and condensed for clarity.
SCRIBER: I selected just a few of the quoted individuals - an Australian reporter, a former director of the National Security Agency, a pastor, a professor, a few politicians, and some just plain folks.
KADIA GOBA, reporter for BuzzFeed News: As the print pooler for the day, I basically chronicle everything the president is doing, every time I see him in the White House for the entire day. We get an update of the president’s schedule the evening before. I anticipated it was going to be a slow day.
THE REV. ROBERT FISHER, rector of St. John’s: As the protests were growing in Lafayette Square, our plan was to be a supportive ministerial presence. We were there offering refreshments, and just being with other people. It was really positive. It felt like we were doing the right thing.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): Around 4:30, I understood they were setting up the Rose Garden — which usually means there’s going to be a press conference.
TOM NICHOLS, professor, political analyst and self-described Never Trump conservative: I was actually in the living room with my wife; we have a television mounted over our fireplace. I was watching the news and suddenly it flashed that the president was going to speak in the Rose Garden at 6:15. And I thought, “This can’t be good.”
GOBA (BuzzFeed): While we were waiting in the Rose Garden, there were loud booms that echoed over and over.
KAITLAN COLLINS, White House correspondent for CNN: We’d been broadcasting live from the roof of a hotel across the street from St. John’s. We’ve been watching these protesters all day. The police had been standing far back, but around 6:30 we saw officers move in from around the barricade.
AMELIA BRACE, Seven News (Australia): They blocked the road, similar to what they’d done before the 11 p.m. curfew the night before. So we thought, “Oh, they’re just getting ready for (the 7 p.m.) curfew.”
BRACE (journalist): I just kept thinking, it’s too early. We have another half an hour.
JUDD DEERE, White House spokesman (in a statement): The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.
DOMENICK (seminary student): We had no warning.
YURI LEE, protester from D.C.: I didn’t hear any warning.
COLLINS (CNN): From where we were on the roof, we could hear the officers say, “This is the first of three warnings. You need to move out of the park.” It was abruptly followed up by a second and third just a few minutes later.
BRACE (journalist): I made eye contact with an officer and held out my press pass. I kept screaming, “Media! Media!” And then he barreled into my cameraman. His shield hit my cameraman’s chest, and then the officer punched him. We started to run.
BRACE: As we were running, I got hit in the back with a baton. My cameraman and I both got hit by rubber bullets.
BRACE: We finally made it through the crowd and ran around the corner, and stopped to take a breath, but then the police came around that corner, too. Our instinct normally is to run toward police for safety. But this was the opposite; they were the people we feared.
BRACE: My parents watched it all live. There was a period where we first got hit and we were getting knocked around and I was off-camera. They couldn’t see me, they could just hear me screaming.
ASHLEE MULLANY (Tweet @AshleeMullany): The moment our @7NewsAustralia team is attacked by police. Cameraman Tim Myers has covered war zones around the world. Today this is what confronted him and @AmeliaBrace outside the White House. The drama unfolded after the workday, around dinnertime, and citizens watched it on their phones and televisions.
ADAM PARKHOMENKO, Democratic operative and reserve officer for the Metropolitan Police Department of D.C.: I was coming back from the grocery store, and was getting in my car when I got a text from a friend telling me I had to turn on CNN right away.
PARKHOMENKO: I pulled it up on my phone, as the scene turned from a peaceful protest into total chaos that was completely unprovoked. I knew in that moment from my time in the volunteer service that there was no way it could have been the D.C. police department that started this. This was federal.
REV. FISHER (St. John’s rector): Earlier in the day, I’d agreed to do a TV interview on Fox News. I left the church and walked to the interview location by the Capitol, and while I was waiting to go on air, I was sitting in this mini lobby that had a television. I was so confused about the violence. Because what I’d just left was not something that would need to be broken up by tear gas.
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA director for George W. Bush and Barack Obama: They were very calm, and then the military and the police and the Secret Service came in. I was aghast. I don’t know what happened to America.
NICHOLS (Never Trumper): I could see the police moving up on the protesters and I thought, “He’s going to try to provoke a clash so that he can walk out right in the middle of a dramatic moment. He is literally stage-managing a moment of violence.”
NICHOLS: He sounded like he was inch away from wanting to declare martial law.
REP. JOHN YARMUTH (D-KY.): I was just mortified, appalled. It was just my wife and I watching. I think I said, “Damn, he just declared war on the American people.”
GOBA (BuzzFeed), back at the White House: I liken the scene in the Rose Garden to a Civil War movie showing a white Southern woman outside her white-columned home, with the threat of war looming a few miles away. You don’t see the protesters at this point; I’m just hearing it behind the backdrop of a beautifully manicured lawn. The booming doesn’t stop. The president concludes his remarks at 6:50 p.m. by saying, “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.” The media is hustled to the North Lawn of the White House grounds, but not told what’s happening. At 7:01 p.m., Trump comes out the front door and starts walking down the driveway to the gates.
NICHOLS (Never Trumper): They were trying to clear the path to St. John’s.
REV. FISHER: At the TV studio, I was now waiting to do my interview in a room that didn’t have a TV. The only way I could follow what was happening was listening to the news broadcast in my earpiece. I thought — wait, is he going to my church? Is that where he’s going? This can’t be happening.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): The press was jogging to keep up. There’s White House staff, who’s helping navigate the entourage, but then there’s Secret Service giving them direction about where we should be placed. At one point we were to the right of Trump, at one time we were in front of him, at one point we were in back.
GEN. HAYDEN: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was walking with him and I said, “Oh my God, what is he doing?” The military would not do that. And yet he went and stood with the president. It was unbelievable to me.
NICHOLS (Never Trumper): The night before people were yelling about me saying, “Don’t burn the church. This is exactly what Trump needs for a symbol.” And sure enough there he was, strutting across Lafayette Square.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): The remnants of whatever spray or gas they had out there was definitely impacting us. I was coughing. It smelled like smoke. It was definitely an irritant. Enough to make you choke. A couple members of the press were coughing, as well as cameramen.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): Trump just stood alone for a second. He held up the Bible first in one hand and then in two hands. It was the most surreal occasion that I’ve ever experienced during White House pool. REV. FISHER: When I saw the Bible, I thought maybe he would say a prayer.
REV. FISHER: But then I realized it was a photo op.
ROSNER (protester): I come back home and see that I just got my ass kicked so that guy could get a photo op?
MARIANN EDGAR BUDDE, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington: We weren’t warned or told about what was going to happen. I wouldn’t have allowed it if I’d been given the chance to weigh in.
BISHOP BUDDE: I was outraged. My major outrage was the abuse of sacred symbols and sacred texts. There was no acknowledgment of grief, no acknowledgment of wounds. There was no attempt to heal. The Bible calls us to our highest aspirations, and he used it as a prop.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): I can’t tell you who gave him the Bible, but I can tell you on the way back a man I do not recognize was carrying the Bible. Trump was not carrying it on the way there. He was definitely handed the Bible.
REP. YARMUTH: With the head of the Joint Chiefs, and the attorney general, and all those people representing the full legal and military force of the country — you’ve cleared out an area of peaceful protesters and brought in this show of strength, and then tried to bless it with a Bible? To me it was just one of the most outlandish displays I’ve seen.
REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-Wash.): Watching that was a different level of shock and horror. Watching horses on their hind legs. And watching not just Donald Trump, but Bill Barr, the top law enforcement officer of the country who has already discarded the Constitution, walking beside him.
GOBA (BuzzFeed): On his way back to the White House, everyone kind of backed off. There was this weird scene where Secret Service still in riot gear were lined along the entrance of the gate and he just walked, by himself, up into the gate. He just walks toward the gate, all alone. Which again was very weird because he was always with a group, but somehow everyone fell back and it was a just a great visual. He stood alone, almost godlike, and just walked to the White House.
BRACE (Australian journalist): What happened really destroyed my understanding of American culture. Until now, the access from the police has been quite good, in that once you made clear you were the media, you felt very safe to do your job. This changed that.
GEN. HAYDEN: I was a military officer for 40 years. And I am sad. Very sad.
Democratic leaders were incensed by the spectacle in Lafayette Square. The reaction from Republicans was mixed. On Tuesday, Kasie Hunt, a correspondent for NBC, tweeted a series of reactions from senators when she asked them about Trump’s photo op:
SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-Wis.): Didn’t really see it.
SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R-La.): I didn’t follow, I’m sorry.
SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R-Kan.): I don’t have any comment on that.
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-Utah): I didn’t watch it closely enough to know.
SEN. MIKE ENZI (R-Wyo.): Sorry, I’m late for lunch.
SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio): I’m late for lunch.
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-Alaska): Not the America I know.
SEN. BEN SASSE (R-Neb.) in a statement: I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL (R-Ky.) in a Tuesday news conference: Apparently there were few to no injuries, and no one got killed, and there was a minimum amount of looting. That’s a heck of a way to feel like you might have had a good night.
GEN. HAYDEN: I was living in a Communist country for two years, in Bulgaria, during the Cold War. And so I know what happens when somebody uses a little power to abuse people.
NICHOLS: I’ve spent a good part of my life lecturing people in other countries about the superiority of the American system. I’m not comfortable doing that anymore.
REP. YARMUTH: I think the president is insane.
BRACE: In Australia, we’ve had 100 covid-related deaths. Here, it’s been more than 100,000. And now, I’ve had so many messages from friends and family saying, “Just get out of there, it’s too dangerous.” Not referring to the protests. Referring to the U.S.
GEN. HAYDEN: If Trump serves one term, it’s very, very bad, but I think we can stand it and we can come back sooner or later. Two terms, we’re done. America will not be the same. Period.