It began with Attorney General Bill Barr standing with his hands casually in his pockets, not wearing a tie, surveying the scene at Lafayette Park across from the White House, where several thousand protesters had gathered for more demonstrations after the police killing of George Floyd.
President Donald Trump had announced he would soon be addressing the nation from the White House Rose Garden, as a 7 p.m. curfew in the city loomed and a mass of law enforcement, including US Secret Service agents, Park Police, and National Guardsmen, stood sentry, many dressed in riot gear.
Moments before 6:30 p.m., just when Trump said he would begin his address, the officers suddenly marched forward, directly confronting the protesters as many held up their hands, saying, “Don't shoot.”
Soon, law enforcement officers were aggressively forcing the protesters back, firing tear gas, and deploying flash bangs into the crowd to disperse them from the park for seemingly no reason. It was a jarring scene as police in the nation's capital forcefully cleared young men and women gathered legally in a public park on a sunny evening, all of it on live television.
With smoke still wafting and isolated tussles continuing in the crowd, Trump emerged in the Rose Garden for a dramatic split-screen of his own creation.
“I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” he declared, before demanding that governors across the nation deploy the National Guard “in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” And he warned that, if they refused, he would deploy the United States military “and quickly solve the problem for them.”
As an additional show of force, Trump announced he was deploying even more of the military to Washington, D.C., giving it the feel of an armed, locked-down city after days of violent clashes, arson, and looting.
“As we speak I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers,” he said, as explosions rang out in the background. “We are putting everybody on warning.”
Then, before departing, Trump announced he wasn't done for the evening, and would be “going to pay my respects to a very very special place.”
Moments later, the White House press pool was quickly summoned for a surprise movement. And soon after, Trump strolled out of the White House gates—something he had never done before—and walked across the park that had just been cleared to accommodate his movements.
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical advisor to the president, called it a moment he would “never forget.”
Trump walked slowly, followed by an entourage of his most senior aides, security, and reporters. The faint residue of pepper spray hung in the air, stinging eyes, and prompting coughing.
Trump crossed H Street and walked toward St. John's Church, the landmark pale yellow building where every president, including Trump, has prayed. It had been damaged Sunday night in a protest fire.
Trump, standing alone in front of cameras, then raised a black-covered Bible for reporters to see.
“We have a great country,” Trump said. “Greatest country in the world.”
He didn't talk about Floyd, the church or the damage it had suffered, or the peaceful protesters police had cleared. He said nothing about the coronavirus pandemic, the parallel crisis that has continued to ravage the nation as Trump campaigns for a second presidential term.
Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, to which St. John's belongs, said she was “outraged” by the moment and noted that Trump didn't pray during his visit.
“He took the symbols sacred to our tradition and stood in front of a house of prayer in full expectation that would be a celebratory moment,” Budde told The Associated Press. “There was nothing I could do but speak out against that.”
She said the church was caught off-guard by the visit.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, issued his own statement saying that Trump had “used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”
“This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us,” added Curry, the first African American to hold that leadership post for US Episcopalians.
Budde took her position at the church in Washington in 2011 after spending 18 years in Minneapolis.
Several pastors who saw the moment on the news joined in the Episcopal leaders’ concerns, including African American clergy and evangelicals.
DC pastor Russ Whitfield, who leads Grace Mosaic, said Christians could not endorse a president “who would gas peaceful protesters just to pose with a Bible.”
When a reporter asked the president, “Is that your Bible?,” Trump replied, “It’s a Bible.” Matt Smethurst, Gospel Coalition managing editor and a Baptist elder, called the exchange “cringeworthy” and the gesture “tone-deaf.”
Others replied that they saw his motives as genuine and were eager to celebrate Trump’s willingness to stand with the Bible.
Following Monday night’s appearance at St. John’s, Trump also faced criticism from Catholic leaders for his visit on Tuesday to a shrine in Washington honoring Pope John Paul II.
Additional reporting by CT
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