Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the way that U.S. Park Police cleared protesters on Monday from the area near Lafayette Square Park in advance of Donald Trump’s visit to an historic church in the area.
“I think the U.S. Park Service, with having bricks thrown at them and frozen water bottles, had the right to act. They acted with the appropriate level of force to protect themselves, and to protect the average citizenry, and to protect the peaceful protesters who were among them as well,” she told reporters at a press briefing on Wednesday.
Reporters pressed her on the chaotic images of the evening, as demonstrators fled the scene while police in riot gear charged forward. One video showed an Australian TV cameraman being shoved by a police officer by a shield. The officer then punched him, before he and an Australian reporter fled the scene.
“Are they protecting the peaceful protesters by firing various chemical agents, and walking through there with batons?” a reporter asked.
“Well, it wasn’t tear gas I would note,” McEnany responded. “And what they used was a way to target those that were being violent. They used the minimal force that they could to ensure that that situation was safe, to make sure that St. John’s Church would not burn for a second night in a row.”
A number of journalists who were at the scene described it as a peaceful protest and did not see projectiles being thrown at police, and Reuters has extensive video of the evening here. They also reported that evening that tear gas and rubber bullets were used, as TV cameras captured demonstrators dousing their eyes with water from the sting.
As for the use of tear gas, it may be a matter of semantics: Park Police said that pepper balls were used to disburse the crowd. The Centers for Disease Control says pepper spray is a form of tear gas that has similar effects.
Shortly after the area was cleared, Trump and other White House officials walked across Lafayette Square Park to St. John’s Church for a photo opportunity in which he held up a Bible for the cameras.
The night before, as unrest ensued in the area, St. John’s was set ablaze, in what a church official said was an object thrown into the basement of a connecting structure. The blaze was contained to a nursery area.
McEnany said that Trump’s visit to the church was “extremely important.”
“The president wanted to send a very powerful message that we will not be overcome by looting, by burning, by rioting,” she said. “This is not what defines America.”
She compared it to Winston Churchill inspecting bombing damage during World War II, George Bush throwing out the first pitch after 9/11, and other presidential symbolic gestures.
Although figures like Rev. Franklin Graham praised the moment, other clergy sharply criticized it.
Mariann Budde, the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s, said she was “outraged” over the photo op. The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, the rector at St. John’s in Georgetown, who said she was “driven off” from the church’s patio area by police in riot gear using “tear gas and concussion grenades.” She told Religion News Service that she was there are part of a group sent by the diocese to offer water to demonstrators.
The Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, also spoke out against the incident, as well as a visit the president and First Lady made the next day to a shrine honoring Pope John Paul II. He said that the late pope “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.”
U.S. Park Police said later on Wednesday that two officers have been assigned to administrative duties while they investigate the incident with the Australian press.