With his path cleared by tear gas, concussion grenades and mounted police, Donald Trump strode across Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday evening to stand before the church of U.S. presidents and reinforce the get-tough message he had just delivered to the nation.
Phalanxes of District of Columbia police and National Guard, plus Secret Service and other law enforcement personnel, had moved less than an hour earlier on a peaceful crowd gathered just across from the White House to protest the death of a black man in police custody. Police on horseback shoved demonstrators while other officers lobbed tear-gas canisters and grenades that make a deafening noise and blinding light.
Trump gave a brief Rose Garden address in which he promised to deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” against protesters. He then walked out the front door of the White House and across Lafayette Square with a large group of senior staff, security personnel and reporters to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The 200-year-old house of worship has hosted every president since James Madison. It sustained minor damage from a fire set during Sunday night demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last week.
Trump stood in front of the church and held up a Bible while he posed with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Attorney General William Barr. Asked if the Bible was his, Trump replied, “It’s a Bible” and later said it came from the White House.
“We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump told reporters. “I’m going to keep it nice and safe.”
Trump’s 17-minute journey to the church came after he faced intense criticism over his decision to remain out of sight on Sunday as violent demonstrations swept cities across the country. He also was taken to a secure bunker on Friday night after protesters clashed with Secret Service officers a few hundred feet from the White House front door.
Trump decided on walking to the church as he weighed next steps on his administration’s protest response with Esper and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to two people familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity. Trump was angered by the vandalism that took place during protests the night before, the people said.
Aides were skeptical about the safety and logistics of the visit, but went into motion to organize it, including on how to clear protesters from the area.
But the visit sparked an immediate backlash, including from Democrats who accused the president of forcibly removing peaceful demonstrators in order to stage a photo op for political gain.
Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the November election, assailed the president’s trip and the police move Monday against protesters.
“He’s using the American military against the American people. He tear-gassed peaceful protesters and fired rubber bullets. For a photo,” the former vice president wrote in a tweet.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, tweeted her dismay that federal police “used munitions on peaceful protesters in front of the White House,” adding that it would make the job of local law enforcement that much harder.
Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s, told CNN that the visit was an “abuse of sacred symbols for people of faith in this country to justify language, rhetoric and an approach to this crisis that is antithetical to everything we stand for.”
In his Rose Garden address, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to states and cities where local leaders fail to quell violence and looting, adding that the 7 p.m. curfew in Washington announced by Bowser earlier in the day would be strictly enforced.
He also tried to present himself as an “ally of peaceful protesters” even as he used the same remarks to call himself “your president of law and order.”
The White House and federal authorities strove to carefully plan the president’s brief visit. Barr, who was seen in the square ahead of Trump’s speech, walked a similar route toward St. John’s with protesters still in the area.
Long rows of law enforcement officials stood guard in the park, and members of the president’s Secret Service detail stayed close as he walked down the driveway and out the tall front gate.
“The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before,” White House spokesman Judd Deere. “Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.”
Trump has visited the church three other times, including for a service on his Inauguration Day in January 2017. Trump typically rode in a motorcade to the church during his prior trips but this time he walked, seemingly for dramatic effect.
Cabinet secretaries and top aides stayed about four feet behind him, faces solemn, for most of the short trip to the church with boarded windows, walking past a U.S. Park Police building that had been burned and tagged with graffiti, including an anti-police message.
The air was still contaminated with a chemical mist, apparently from the from tear gas. Reporters in the press corps, who had to run in a pack to stay ahead of the president, began coughing as they waited for Trump to reach the sidewalk in front of the church.
The president didn’t go inside the church. He returned to the White House gates while walking through two columns of federal law enforcement in riot gear.
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