There was just one problem: the throngs of protesters, who on Monday had again assembled peacefully in Lafayette Square across from the White House to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
And so — shortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 p.m. Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District’s 7 p.m. curfew went into effect — authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.
The split screen as Trump began speaking was dark and foreboding — an angry leader proclaiming himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” alongside smoke-filled mayhem and pandemonium as protesters raced for safety.
The evening’s events were the product of a president who favors brute strength and fears looking weak, yet finds himself reeling from a duo of crises — a deadly pandemic that has left more than 100,000 Americans dead and racial unrest that has led to protests and riots across the nation.
He has also been consumed by his faltering poll numbers against former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
When Trump had returned safely to the White House less than an hour later, the verdict seemed clear: The president had staged an elaborate photo op, using a Bible awkwardly held aloft as a prop and a historic church that has long welcomed presidents and their families as a backdrop.
In the process, protesters had been tear gassed and attacked, and Trump had taken a raging conflagration and doused it with accelerant.
“We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,” said Brendan Buck, a longtime former Hill aide who is now a Republican operative. “The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”
Trump’s decision to speak to the nation from the Rose Garden and to visit the church came together earlier in the day, said one senior White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The president was upset about news coverage of him briefly retreating to the White House bunker Friday evening amid protests, and he repeatedly wondered why anyone would have disclosed those details to the news media, two officials said.
He was also frustrated by coverage this weekend of his call with the Floyd family, which he believed was positive — Trump called it “a very good call,” an official said — but was portrayed negatively.
Finally, Trump was angry at cable news footage from Sunday evening, showing protests and riots near the White House, a White House official said. He spent much of Monday discussing with his team how to demonstrate the streets in Washington were under control and that there would not be riotous scenes in the coming days, the official said.
Inside the West Wing, aides were torn on the proposed spectacle. One official argued it was necessary, allowing Trump to demonstrate that he was not hunkered down and was out of the White House, as well as standing with evangelical voters by visiting the church. But two others worried it could backfire.
“It was just to win the news cycle,” one Trump adviser said. “I’m not sure that things are any better for us tomorrow.”
Jason Miller, a former senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, defended the president’s decision. He said Trump was elected in part on law-and-order themes, which he needs to continue to hammer, while simultaneously talking to black supporters about some of his initiatives, such as criminal justice reform.
“You’re going to have to go and knock some of the bad guys around a little bit,” Miller said. “Once they get tear gassed or pepper sprayed, they don't want it to happen again.”
He added that Trump had been reminded by allies that he was elected as a “get-things-done president.”
“He’s not the hand-holder or consoler in chief,” Miller said. “He was elected to take bold dramatic action and that’s what he did.”
The action began less than an hour before the District’s curfew, and in the moments before Trump was set to speak. Just after 6 p.m., hundreds of protesters were gathered on H Street NW, facing Lafayette Square. Though members of the National Guard — wielding shields that said “Military Police” — were lined up behind barricades, along with Secret Service and other law enforcement officers, the protesters remained peaceful. Several played music, and one painted on an easel.
But shortly thereafter, Attorney General William P. Barr visited the scene, and, about 6:30 p.m., the National Guard moved just yards from the protesters, prompting some screams. Some protesters threw water bottles, but many simply stood with their arms raised.
Then, the chaos began.
Members of the National Guard knelt briefly to put on gas masks, before suddenly charging eastward down H street, pushing protesters down toward 17th Street. Authorities shoved protesters down with their shields, fired rubber bullets directly at them, released tear gas and set off flash-bang shells in the middle of the crowd.
Protesters began running, many still with their hands up, shouting, “Don’t shoot.” Others were vomiting, coughing and crying.
As Trump began to speak, some protesters took a knee several blocks from the White House, again yelling, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” But they were never able to stay kneeling for more than a couple of minutes, because authorities kept pushing them forward, as a thick, yellow cloud of smoke hung over the crowd.
About midway through his remarks, and roughly 10 minutes before the city’s curfew was set to go into effect, the president offered a stark warning: “Our 7 o’clock curfew will be strictly enforced. Those who threaten innocent life and property will be arrested, detained, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Trump concluded by promising that the nation’s “greatest days lie ahead,” and then said, cryptically, “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place. Thank you very much.”
Accompanied by a small cadre of top advisers — including his daughter Ivanka Trump, clad in dark coronavirus mask — the president then made his way over to the church.
One White house official noted the lack of any black aides. Vice President Pence, a leading administration official to Christian voters, was also conspicuously absent from the event at the church.
Trump seemed to take in the scene and paused in front of St. John’s, turning to the cameras and holding up a black Bible in his right hand.
Asked if it was a family Bible, he said, simply, “It’s a Bible.”
Soon after the church event, the president’s top law enforcement and military officials, including the secretary of defense, attorney general and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, walked across parts of downtown Washington in an unusual show of force.
Some local officials were livid. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser upbraided Trump on Twitter: “I imposed a curfew at 7pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protesters in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful! DC residents — Go home. Be safe.”
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said she learned of the president’s visit by watching it on the news.
“I am outraged,” she said, with pauses emphasizing her anger as her voice slightly trembled. “I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.”
But Trump’s campaign team viewed the visit as a success. By late Monday, campaign officials were already tweeting a black-and-white photo of him walking to the church with a coterie of aides in his wake. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s top spokesman, posted the picture without a caption.
As the curfew descended upon the nation’s capital, the scene had calmed down significantly. Trump returned to the White House, and the groups of hundreds of protesters began dispersing.
Helicopters could be heard overhead all over the city Monday night, and officials said the streets were far emptier than usual.