U.S. President Donald Trump faced a dwindling set of options to address nationwide unrest after a backlash erupted over the government’s violent dispersal of peaceful protests outside the White House, plunging the president into more election-year turmoil.
For Trump and his conservative backers, his photo op late Monday in front of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church with Bible in hand was a show of strength — a symbolic move meant to reassure Americans that he would restore law and order after several nights of chaos in major U.S. cities over the death of George Floyd.
Instead, Trump’s display prompted a cascade of condemnation from religious leaders, Democrats and even some Republicans. Images of police using tear gas and flash-bang devices to clear protesters from Lafayette Square ahead of Trump’s walk to the church marred his presidency anew at a time when his public support was already slipping over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
No Republican governors publicly accepted Trump’s invitation to send the military to crush riots and looting; Texas’s Greg Abbott said at a news conference that “Texans can take care of Texans.”
And the show of force failed to deter demonstrations in the nation’s capital and other cities. Large crowds of protesters began marching on public streets in Washington Tuesday evening, challenging both the city’s 7 p.m. curfew and Trump’s authority.
Trump was praised by some evangelical Christian leaders for his walk to the church.
“By holding up the Bible, he was showing us that it teaches that, yes, God hates racism, it’s despicable — but God also hates lawlessness,” pastor Robert Jeffress said in an interview with The Atlantic.
But the crisis — and Trump’s response — has created an opening for likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who seized on the president’s missteps.
He delivered a televised speech from Philadelphia on Tuesday, saying that had Trump opened his Bible “instead of brandishing it, he could have learned something: That we are all called to love one another as we love ourselves.”
A Monmouth University poll released earlier this week showed 74 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, an alarming response to a question pollsters consider important in judging a president’s re-election chances. Trump’s approval rating was at 42 percent, down from 46 percent in March.
Trump officials have discussed the possibility of the president invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to make good on his threat to send U.S. military forces to states and cities that struggle to quell rioting and looting, according to a person familiar with the matter. But a consensus has not emerged.
“No decisions have been made on that,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday, after reporters asked how seriously the idea was being considered. She expressed hope that such a move wouldn’t be “necessary.”
The possibility of Trump addressing the nation in a prime time Oval Office address has also been under discussion, but some of the president’s allies believe it would not bring an end to the demonstrations.
“That would only set the president up for failure for the simple fact that it doesn’t matter how beautiful, or poetic or even unifying an Oval Office address President Trump might give, it’s not going to immediately stop the lawlessness that we’re seeing in the streets,” said Jason Miller, a former spokesman for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In his Rose Garden remarks Monday evening, though, Trump offered little to unify the nation, sooth wounds reopened by Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police or call for calm. The president instead presented the might of the U.S. military as his answer to domestic unrest.
And previous efforts to deliver a presidential message from the Oval Office have largely been panned. His March 11 speech about the coronavirus pandemic, in which he blamed China for the outbreak, sent financial markets tumbling.
As criticism of Monday’s police violence mounted, Trump’s White House braced itself. The security perimeter was extended to two blocks in all directions, with a fence appearing overnight on the northern side of Lafayette Square, normally a public park. Besides a brief visit to a Catholic shrine roughly four miles from the White House, Trump didn’t leave the property and made no public remarks.
Even that short trip earned the president a rebuke.
The Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, called it “reprehensible” for the shrine to host Trump after the police attack on Lafayette Square protesters. The shrine is a monument to Saint Pope John Paul II, whom Gregory suggested would have condemned Trump’s actions, including his walk to St. John’s church.
“He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace,” Gregory said.
The shrine said in a statement posted on Twitter that it had expected Trump to sign an executive order on international religious freedom during his visit. “This was fitting given St. John Paul II was a tireless advocate of religious liberty throughout his pontificate,” it said.
Trump instead signed the order in private back at the White House.
Two Republican senators, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, said they opposed the use of forceful tactics to disperse protesters ahead of Trump’s walk.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police. But there is a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” Sasse said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Biden this week emerged from weeks sequestered at home due to coronavirus-related restrictions for an appearance at a historically African American church in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Philadelphia speech on race that hit many notes important to rally his diverse base.
“When peaceful protesters are dispersed by the order of the president from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades — in order to stage a photo op at a noble church, we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle,” Biden said.
Trump lashed out at the former vice president on Twitter.
“Sleepy Joe has been in politics for 40 years, and did nothing. Now he pretends to have the answers. He doesn’t even know the questions. Weakness will never beat anarchists, looters or thugs, and Joe has been politically weak all of his life. LAW & ORDER!” Trump tweeted.
Inside the White House, the president’s walk appeared to be viewed as a success in burnishing Trump’s image as protector of law and order and religious freedom. The White House released a 30-second video on Tuesday morning of the moment set to triumphant music.
“That is a symbol to everyone that we will not allow arsonists and anarchists who set that fire ablaze, who really, I think, demeaned the memory of those who lost their lives in the name of their respective faiths and religions. We won’t allow them to dissuade us from practicing our religion,” Conway said on Fox News.
Trump asserted in a tweet Tuesday evening that “Washington, D.C. was the safest place on earth last night!” even as protesters massed on streets around the city.
The president had berated governors to adopt his get-tough attitude toward protesters in a conference call on Monday, saying that “most of you are weak.” His message “certainly characterizes the way that this president has used words to threaten through his tenure as president and of course throughout his life,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday.
“The president, to be clear, should not deploy the U.S. military to fire on our fellow Americans,” he said.
Few close to the president were willing to take ownership for the decision to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square; some sought to keep their distance.
Conway said Trump didn’t give the order to disperse protesters himself, telling reporters he does not typically weigh in on security arrangements to protect his movements.
A Pentagon official said Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley didn’t know in advance that the square would be swept of demonstrators or that they would be joining Trump for his walk to the church. Nevertheless, Milley, the top uniformed officer in the U.S., was seen hours after the church visit in combat fatigues while visiting National Guard personnel deployed in Washington.
Esper told NBC News that he was thought the walk to the church was to inspect the damage there.
Later Tuesday, a Justice Department official said Attorney General William Barr was heavily involved in the decision to extend the security perimeter around the White House, and personally ordered the move carried out on Monday evening after he was surprised to see it had not yet been done ahead of Trump’s walk.
But the U.S. Park Police said in a statement hours later from its acting chief, Gregory Monahan, that it decided to use pepper agents and smoke to disperse the crowd of demonstrators after they allegedly threw bricks, water bottles and other items at officers guarding the park.
Witness accounts from the protest, including by journalists on the scene covering it, indicated demonstrators were peaceful before police initiated the violence and that there was no warning ahead of time, contradicting Monahan’s statement.