Protestors Tear Gassed to Clear Way for Trump Photo Op
The President of the United States’ outrageous response to protests against police violence has finally become sufficiently extreme to get top billing on the front pages of our top newspapers.
As can be seen from the headlines, the outrages are multiple and overlapping. In the post, I’ll concentrate on the most concrete but arguably the least dangerous: federal police and military police used teargas on peaceful protestors to clear the way for the President to stage a photo op outside a church at which he does not worship. This outrageous and indefensible act merited sidebar coverage.
President Trump began mulling a visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday morning, after spending the night devouring cable news coverage of protests across the country, including in front of the White House.
The historic church had been damaged by fire, and Trump was eager to show that the nation’s capital — and especially his own downtown swath of it — was under control.
There was just one problem: the throngs of protesters, who on Monday had again assembled peacefully in Lafayette Square across from the White House to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
And so — shortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 p.m. Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District’s 7 p.m. curfew went into effect — authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.
The split screen as Trump began speaking was dark and foreboding — an angry leader proclaiming himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” alongside smoke-filled mayhem and pandemonium as protesters raced for safety.
The evening’s events were the product of a president who favors brute strength and fears looking weak, yet finds himself reeling from a duo of crises — a deadly pandemic that has left more than 100,000 Americans dead and racial unrest that has led to protests and riots across the nation.
When Trump had returned safely to the White House less than an hour later, the verdict seemed clear: The president had staged an elaborate photo op, using a Bible awkwardly held aloft as a prop and a historic church that has long welcomed presidents and their families as a backdrop.
In the process, protesters had been tear gassed and attacked, and Trump had taken a raging conflagration and doused it with accelerant.:
The use of the passive voice is present in the three reports I’ve read on the incident (see NPR and NYT for the others). There’s no proof Trump himself gave the order. But we know the whole scheme was concocted yesterday morning and that “U.S. Secret Service uniformed officers, military police and other law enforcement” were the ones who ordered the protesters to disperse and fired tear gas on them when they didn’t do so.
Even loyalists are outraged:
“We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative. “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.”
Alas, not all of them are. Indeed, they point to this being on-brand:
Jason Miller, a former senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, defended the president’s decision. He said Trump was elected in part on law-and-order themes, which he needs to continue to hammer, while simultaneously talking to black supporters about some of his initiatives, such as criminal justice reform.
“You’re going to have to go and knock some of the bad guys around a little bit,” Miller said. “Once they get tear gassed or pepper sprayed, they don’t want it to happen again.”
He added that Trump had been reminded by allies that he was elected as a “get-things-done president.”
“He’s not the hand-holder or consoler in chief,” Miller said. “He was elected to take bold dramatic action and that’s what he did.”
Trump’s staff weren’t concerned about the wisdom, morality, or legality of the decision, merely the optics.
Inside the West Wing, aides were torn on the proposed spectacle. One official argued it was necessary, allowing Trump to demonstrate that he was not hunkered down and was out of the White House, as well as standing with evangelical voters by visiting the church. But two others worried it could backfire.
“It was just to win the news cycle,” one Trump adviser said. “I’m not sure that things are any better for us tomorrow.”
The description of how it went down is chilling:
The action began less than an hour before the District’s curfew, and in the moments before Trump was set to speak. Just after 6 p.m., hundreds of protesters were gathered on H Street NW, facing Lafayette Square. Though members of the National Guard — wielding shields that said “Military Police” — were lined up behind barricades, along with Secret Service and other law enforcement officers, the protesters remained peaceful. Several played music, and one painted on an easel.
But shortly thereafter, Attorney General William P. Barr visited the scene, and, about 6:30 p.m., the National Guard moved just yards from the protesters, prompting some screams. Some protesters threw water bottles, but many simply stood with their arms raised.
Then, the chaos began.
Members of the National Guard knelt briefly to put on gas masks, before suddenly charging eastward down H street, pushing protesters down toward 17th Street. Authorities shoved protesters down with their shields, fired rubber bullets directly at them, released tear gas and set off flash-bang shells in the middle of the crowd.
Protesters began running, many still with their hands up, shouting, “Don’t shoot.” Others were vomiting, coughing and crying.
As Trump began to speak, some protesters took a knee several blocks from the White House, again yelling, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” But they were never able to stay kneeling for more than a couple of minutes, because authorities kept pushing them forward, as a thick, yellow cloud of smoke hung over the crowd.
About midway through his remarks, and roughly 10 minutes before the city’s curfew was set to go into effect, the president offered a stark warning: “Our 7 o’clock curfew will be strictly enforced. Those who threaten innocent life and property will be arrested, detained, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Alas, this was not the most outrageous action taken by the President that evening. I’ll return to that later in the day.