The shocking scene of peaceful protesters gassed and pummeled with rubber bullets Monday in Lafayette Square to make way for a presidential photo op had dominated the news cycle for nearly 24 hours, with images of coughing, weeping activists fleeing through billows of smoke. Journalists grappled with questions ranging from who ordered the aggressive use of force to whether President Trump’s use of military and religious symbolism raised constitutional concerns.
But late Tuesday, his reelection campaign pushed back by demanding a specific correction from the media:
The part in the stories about “tear gas” being used on the crowd, they maintained, was untrue.
Or was it? The campaign claim, based on a U.S. Park Police statement that officers used “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” but not tear gas, appears to be a distinction without a difference — and maybe not even much of a distinction at all, according to how the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies tear gas.
And yet it represents a common Trump Team tactic of going on the offensive against a potentially damning news story by blurring a small debate over semantics into a wholesale attack on the integrity of the news media.
“Media Falsely Claimed Violent Riots Were Peaceful And That Tear Gas Was Used Against Rioters,” Trump tweeted Tuesday night over a commentary from a Trump-friendly website about the incident, which preceded Trump’s photo op at a church next to the square. “Fake News is hurting our Country so badly.”
Lafayette Square has been the site of contentious scenes in recent days, but the White House claim that the Monday evening protesters were “violent” right before Park Police moved in has not been supported by video or witness accounts.
Still, it is the Trump campaign’s pushback on the tear-gas reports that seems in some ways beside the point. Whether or not it was “tear gas” — the bursting clouds that governments have used for nearly 100 years to disperse crowds — it remains undeniable that protesters were doused with chemical irritants. And it was their forcible removal, not the kind of chemical used, that spurred controversy.
“Saying it wasn’t tear gas is meant to mislead,” said Joe Lockhart, a press secretary under President Bill Clinton. “All politicians mislead from time to time to make a point, or to get out of a jam. Trump and his staff mislead with everything they do. . . . Rather than answer a question, they find some obscure quote or fact and pretend it answers the question.”
Meanwhile, the CDC actually considers the very chemical irritants used in Lafayette Square to fit within the broad umbrella term of “tear gas.”
“Pepper ball” is a friendly sounding name for a projectile filled with a chemical irritant similar to conventional tear gas. When fired from a pistol-like device, the balls burst and spread a 12-foot cloud that “affects the eyes, nose and respiratory system,” according to PepperBall, a San Diego-based company that has manufactured and marketed guns and projectiles for more than 20 years.
Although pepper balls and tear gas are somewhat different chemically, many people who have been doused with them tend to assume they are the same, as the students at the University of Dayton in Ohio said when police used pepper balls to break up a crowd in March.
Trump has long used small ambiguities to claim unfair treatment from the news media — a tactic that is closely related to his thousands of instances of making misleading, baseless and dishonest statements.
When he was criticized for mocking the movements of a disabled reporter during the 2016 presidential campaign, he pushed back on the stories by claiming he had been misrepresented, saying he was mocking the reporter’s “groveling,” not his physical condition.
When he said then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had blood coming out of her “whatever” when she asked him a tough question at an early primary debate, Trump expressed shock, saying “only a deviant” would assume he was talking about menstruation.
In other situations, he has attempted to divert from outrageous or false claims by saying later he was merely kidding.
That was his defense in April after he suggested at a White House briefing that “disinfectant” could be “injected” into coronavirus patients. He later explained to journalists that he was “asking the question sarcastically to reporters like you to see what would happen.” (In fact, what happened was that health officials had to issue warnings not to ingest disinfectants.)
Trump’s frequent attempts at spin are part of a larger rhetorical strategy, wrote Jennifer Mercieca, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, in a column for The Washington Post in April.
Trump relies on “distrust, polarization and outrage” to rally his supporters, who don’t believe he makes mistakes, she wrote. The strategy emphasizes that the mainstream media hates Trump, and thus doesn’t tell the truth about him: The so-called lying mainstream media “are just trying to distort Trump’s words and turn them into something else” to embarrass him, wrote Mercieca, the author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”
As the debate over what constitutes tear gas played out on Wednesday, another bit of Trumpian spin got largely swept under the rug. Or into the presidential bunker.
Amid reports that he had retreated into the White House’s secure bunker as protests grew angry and violent Friday night in Lafayette Square, Trump at first denied having done so in a radio interview. He then quickly reversed himself, saying he had gone to the bunker several times during the day.
He then added a new spin: He went there not because of the angry crowd steps from his front door but because he wanted to “inspect” the facility.
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