Donald Trump vowed to quell unrest across the country and even deploy the military on U.S. soil, in an extraordinary hour on Monday evening that started with an exertion of presidential power and ended with a photo op.
“I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump said in a brief statement from the Rose Garden.
Moments before Trump gave his speech, law enforcement officers dispersed hundreds of demonstrators who were peacefully protesting the death of George Floyd at the intersection of 16th & H, just on the edge of Lafayette Square Park near the White House. Authorities used tear gas and flash bangs to vacate the area, and the crowd scrambled to get out of the way of flanks of officers in riot gear and others on horseback.
Trump said he would invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to mobilize the military to end what he called “riots and lawlessness.” He threatened to send in the military if states refuse to take more severe action to end disturbances.
The Insurrection Act has a long history intertwined with race and public violence. The act has its roots in the Civil War. The current language dates to 1871, when the Insurrection Act was revised to protect African Americans from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan. It was later deployed in 1989 to prevent looting after Hurricane Hugo and in 1992 during the L.A. Riots.
“I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights,” Trump said, as the sound of explosions could be heard in the distance. News networks used split screen to show the speech and the spectacle outside the White House gates.
Yet soon it became clear that the demonstrators were forced from the area for a presidential photo op. After his brief remarks, Trump walked across Lafayette Park and went to St. John’s Church, the historic structure known as the “Church of the Presidents.” He held up a Bible as he stood before reporters and said, “It’s a great country, that’s my thoughts.” He did not go inside, and within minutes he walked back to the White House.
The church was threatened on Sunday night when a basement room was set on fire, but it was extinguished and the damage contained.
The incident was one of the most dramatic moments to play out on TV in the past few days of demonstrations, as police and National Guardsmen pushed people back, some of them holding up their hands to show they did not pose a threat.
On CNN, reporter Alex Marquardt wore a gas mask as he reported from chaos.
Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS Newshour, wrote, “Here is what was happening outside the White House as President Trump was giving his Rose Garden address and saying he is an “ally of all peaceful protestors.” Peaceful protestors being tear gassed outside of the WH gates. I confirmed because I was teargassed along with them.”
Others saw the police action as indicative of Trump’s tendency toward showmanship.
“The president wants to make a reality TV show of God and country,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on CNN, before asking, “When was the last time you saw the American military called out against Americans?”
St. John’s Church is part of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, D.C., and its bishop, Mariann Budde, said that she was “outraged” over the president’s photo op.
She said that Trump “just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for. To do so, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged. The president did not pray when he came to St. John’s; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of systemic racism and white supremacy in our country.”
CNN’s coverage was a mixture of drama and warning — and a bit of ridicule. Don Lemon described Trump’s action as a “made for television moment,” noting that Attorney General William Barr appeared in the park just before Trump’s statement, as if surveying the troops. But Lemon later warned that the country was “teetering on a dictatorship.”
“He has to sick police on peaceful protesters so he can make a big show of being the little big man walking to a closed down church,” said Anderson Cooper.
“This event, as I said, if it wasn’t so dangerous and disgusting, it would be funny, because it is so low rent and just sad,” Cooper added.
Trump also was criticized by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, albeit for not doing enough to immediately stop the unrest. He chided Trump for a tweet on Saturday morning and telling followers he and his family were safe.
“He seemed aware only of himself,” Carlson said.
“The first requirement of leadership is that you watch over the people in your care,” he said.
Carlson went on to say that Trump’s visit to St. John’s was a “powerful symbolic gesture,” but said, “What Americans want most right now is an end to this chaos. They want their cities to be saved. They want this to stop immediately. If the commander in chief cannot stop it he will lose in November. The left will blame him for the atrocities they encouraged, and some voters will agree.”