WASHINGTON • People waved signs and screamed for justice as they gathered outside the White House to protest against police brutality on Monday. They also watched as police officers and National Guard units flooded Lafayette Square, delivering on a threat made by President Donald Trump.
And just before the city’s 7pm curfew went into effect, they were hit with flash-bang grenades and doused with tear gas. It was because the President, who spent part of the weekend in a secure bunker as protests roiled, wanted to have his picture taken holding a Bible at a battered church just beyond the gates.
St John’s Episcopal Church – the so-called Church of the Presidents because it has been attended by every one since James Madison in the early 1800s – had been briefly set ablaze as the protests devolved on Sunday evening.
After Mr Trump’s aides spent much of Monday expressing outrage over the burning of a place of worship, presidential adviser Hope Hicks hatched a plan with others at the White House to have Mr Trump walk over to the building, said an official familiar with the events.
As Mr Trump delivered a speech in the Rose Garden vowing to send the military to states where governors could not bring rioting under control, but calling himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters”, the sound of explosions and the yells of demonstrators could be heard.
After receiving repeated warnings to disperse before the city’s curfew, the crowd was tear-gassed.
Mr Trump began his walk to the church at 7.01pm for a 17-minute photo session. On his way over, after protesters had been driven from the park, he was trailed by a group of aides, including Attorney-General William Barr.
Mr Barr had strolled to the edge of the police line to observe the crowd before the tear-gassing began. He walked alongside Mr Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and adviser, and Ms Ivanka Trump, his daughter and adviser.
Ms Trump was wearing a mask, one of the few visible reminders on Monday that the United States is in the midst of a public health crisis.
As police sirens blared in the background, Mr Trump, his lips set in a thin line, stood with his back to the boarded-up, graffiti-laden facade of the church.
He cradled a Bible, bouncing it in his hands. “Is that your Bible?” a reporter yelled. “It’s em a /em Bible,” Mr Trump responded, and hoisted the book up so reporters could see.
THE OPPOSITE OF HEALING
He did not pray. He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.
BISHOP MARIANN BUDDE, on President Donald Trump’s photo opportunity, waving a Bible in front of a church in her diocese.
The bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, who watched the scene unfold while away from the church visiting her mother, said church officials were not told of the plan, and expressed outrage at the White House’s use of riot-control tactics on a generally peaceful crowd to clear a path for the President to visit the church.
“He did not pray,” Bishop Mariann Budde said in an interview.
Referring to the death of the black man in police custody that set off the protests, she added: “He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces.”
Bishop Budde denounced the way Mr Trump had used a Bible as a political prop. “The Bible is not an American document,” she said. “It’s not an expression of our country. It’s an expression of the human struggle to serve and love and know God.”