With heavy-handed tactics, Trump’s church photo-op backfires. It was quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops.
Yesterday afternoon at the White House Rose Garden, Donald Trump declared himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” But as the president spoke, there were noises of unrest audible in the background, and it wasn’t immediately clear why.
That soon changed.
Moments before President Donald Trump vowed to use military might to stop rioting, police backed by the National Guard stormed into a peaceful protest outside the White House and scattered a large group of people protesting unprovoked police violence against African Americans. At the time, none of the protesters or nearby journalists knew the reason for clearing the street. But the purpose became clear as soon as Trump finished his speech in the Rose Garden.
For those who’ve never visited the White House, it’s worth noting that immediately north of the building, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, is a public park called Lafayette Square. And on the other side of the park is St. John’s Episcopal Church, a congregation sometimes referred to as the Church of the Presidents given its history and location.
Yesterday, there was a group of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square. There was no violence or unrest, and those assembled in the park had every right to be there. (There was a curfew in Washington, D.C., last night, but it had not yet taken effect.) Nevertheless, shortly after Trump touted himself as “an ally of all peaceful protesters,” law enforcement launched a rather extraordinary offensive against the demonstrators, which included, among other things, firing tear gas and flash-bang shells at those who had peaceably assembled.
Once Lafayette Square had been cleared by force, Trump walked across the park – the length of a city block – stood in front of St. John’s, held up a Bible, posed for the cameras, and then walked back. The Republican did not go inside the church; he did not read from the Bible; he did not pray or engage in any form of worship; he didn’t even visit with a pastor.
“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked. “It’s a Bible,” Trump replied.
It was quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops.
On the New York Times’ online homepage this morning, there was a 13-word headline that summarized what transpired nicely: “Peaceful Rally Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Can Pose at a Church.” It’s apt because it’s precisely what happened.
Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Paul Ryan, told Politico, “We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act. The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”
A senior White House official told Axios that when they saw the tear gas clearing the crowd for Trump to walk to the church with his entourage, “I’ve never been more ashamed. I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach.”
But perhaps no one was more disgusted than relevant religious leaders. The New York Times reported that the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said church officials were not told of the White House’s plan and expressed outrage at the use of riot-control tactics.
“He did not pray,” the bishop, Mariann E. Budde, said in an interview. Referring to the death of the black man in police custody that set off the protests, she added: “He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”
The article added that a visiting priest attending St. John’s was sprayed with tear gas as she tried to help scared demonstrators leave the area. The bishop told the Washington Post that she’s “outraged,” not only by the heavy-handed tactics, but also by Trump’s willingness to use a church “as a prop.”
Just when it seems the president can’t go any lower, he finds a way.
Questions remain unanswered
Alex Ward (vox.com) says The White House’s explanation for a tear gas attack on peaceful protesters doesn’t add up. And the White House still won’t answer the most important question: Who ordered the attack?
Just minutes before President Donald Trump was scheduled to give a speech in the White House Rose Garden about the anti–police brutality protests, law enforcement officers outside the White House launched tear gas at hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered in neighboring Lafayette Square.
It produced a shocking scene of federal officials shooting a weapon banned from warfare at Americans. The crowd scattered, allowing Secret Service, National Guard, and Park Police personnel to make a path for Trump and his team to visit a nearby church after his address.
That led to widespread speculation that Trump or someone else at the White House had ordered the tear gas attack solely to give Trump the photo op he wanted with his team at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a recent cause célèbre among the right after its basement was partially burned during the unrest on Sunday night.
All of this seemed surreal, and deeply disturbing if true. Did the White House purposely have federal officials shoot at American citizens with tear gas solely to benefit Trump?
So I asked the White House, via email, a simple question: “Do [you] know who gave the order to clear the crowd in Lafayette Square with tear gas?”
Here’s the response from Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson: “The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7:00 pm curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before. Protesters were given three warnings by the US Park Police.”
This explanation is suspect for several reasons — the most important being that, although DC Mayor Bowser had ordered a curfew for DC starting at 7 pm, video of the incident shows that law enforcement fired the tear gas well before then.
Second, the statement did not address the question of who gave the order.
And third, the statement explicitly mentions the church, which seems to signal that the goal of the whole ordeal was to get Trump to St. John’s no matter what.
I followed up with Deere in an email, asking two questions: “1) The tear gas was shot well before 7pm. Was it necessary to launch?” and (again), “2) Who ordered the tear gas launch?”
“You have my statement,” he responded. “I have nothing further to share.”
Let’s be clear about what this means: The White House is explicitly not denying that Trump or another administration official greenlit the tear gas attack, and there’s no clear explanation why anyone thought using tear gas on peaceful protesters was warranted just so the president could have a photo op.
At a time when citizens across the country are taking to the streets by the thousands to demand accountability for unchecked police violence, the White House — perhaps even the president himself — seems to have made a conscious decision to respond to one of those (entirely peaceful) protests with more unchecked police violence.
Barr was seen walking through police lines just before the police attack. Did he issue the order? Apparently so. From the Washington Post: Barr personally asked for protesters to be pushed back from Lafayette Square.
[A] law enforcement official said that in the afternoon [Monday], Barr went to survey the scene — and found the perimeter had not been extended. The attorney general conferred with law enforcement officials on the ground — which the official said is captured in a video of the incident.
“He conferred with them to check on the status and basically said, ‘This needs to be done. Get it done,’” the official said.
But why did it “needs to be done”?
And which political wizard thought this was a good idea? The reports cited indicate that long-time communications counselor to Trump, Hope Hicks, and some others at the White House planned it.