The moment was indeed iconic. But it spawned yet another crisis for the president.
The succession of images from Lafayette Square on June 1 has reverberated for nearly two weeks — a harrowing cable news split-screen that now has enduring consequences for Trump and outsize symbolism for a nation broken after yet another black man died in the custody of police.
So indelible were the pictures that night outside the White House that Lafayette Square has come to represent Trump’s inability to meet the moment. The layers of black fencing erected to close the park and surrounding streets became Fortress White House — a physical manifestation of the president’s distance from Americans’ cries for racial justice. The bold, yellow “BLACK LIVES MATTER” lettering on 16th Street became a declaration of resistance visible from the sky. And the name Lafayette Square itself became a shorthand for so much of what many see as wrong in America.
“History picks these moments. It picked the march on Selma. It picked Bull Connor sending dogs against children. It picked the burning child from Vietnam,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist and ad maker who works with the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group.
With his triumphal stride through the square to historical St. John’s Episcopal Church, Trump had hoped to appear strong and dominant, and to dispel the narrative of him hiding in the secured White House bunker during evening protests outside. Demanding a show of force, he sought to make the nation’s capital a shining example of how to control the streets amid racial unrest.
Instead, the photo op proved calamitous.
The episode caused an extraordinary breach between the commander in chief and the military. The Pentagon’s top general, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark A. Milley, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, both of whom flanked Trump that day, scrambled to distance themselves from the spectacle. And a succession of former officers, including Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, excoriated the president.
The episode magnified many characteristics of the Trump presidency. At a period of national turmoil, Trump appeared self-indulgent and overtly political as he posed for photos that his aides quickly turned into a propaganda-style montage.
The event itself was slapdash and haphazard. No remarks were prepared for the president to deliver. He did not tour the damage the church sustained to its basement during riots the night before. When a reporter asked if he was holding a family Bible, he described it only as “a Bible.” He offered no prayer or moment of silence to honor the life of George Floyd, whose May 25 death in the custody of Minneapolis police sparked the nationwide protests for racial justice.
“What happened was symptomatic of so many things,” said a senior White House official, speaking anonymously to share a candid assessment. “The gulf between what happened and what could have happened was so great. If you’re going to go, then go — but plan it.”
Trump’s standing in public opinion polls, already weak amid the coronavirus pandemic, has dropped further since the Lafayette Square episode. The smoky images of largely peaceful protesters choking on chemical irritants juxtaposed with the president’s photo op prompted the opposite of his intended effect, generating widespread sympathy for the protesters.
Eddie Glaude, the chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University, said that in two short weeks Lafayette Square has come to represent “the theater of dictatorial power.”
“People saw it clearly for what it was, and to conscript the military into that performance made concrete the feeling that not only are we seeing the erosion of democratic norms, but the very institutions of the country are in jeopardy,” Glaude said.
Retired Army general Wesley Clark, who served as supreme allied commander of NATO, recalled watching the clash at Lafayette Square on television: “My wife and I looked at these young people demonstrating. They were wearing Patagonia shirts. These were not the Rodney King riots of 1992. And suddenly, they were moved against viciously. I don’t care if it was tear gas or pepper spray. It was really shocking and outrageous. There was no reason for it. Then to see the president come across with the military leadership, oh, it looked ugly.”
Inside Trump’s orbit, the reaction was mixed. Some worried the president’s desire for an immediate display of strength had backfired, making it look like the president personally had ordered the use of tear gas against Americans. The spectacle underscored the lack of any substantive planning or communications forethought behind the sojourn through the square, according to a current senior administration official and a former senior administration official.
“This was a colossal staff failure,” said the former official, who has been briefed on internal deliberations and spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank. “I’m sure that it was well-intentioned by people who were aware that there was a need and desire for the president to project strength and to counter the hiding-in-the-bunker narrative that was so frustrating to him. . . . But it was very poorly executed, and as a result clearly did more harm than good, for the president and for the country.”
Nevertheless, Trump has celebrated the images of himself standing in front of St. John’s and holding the Bible aloft.
“I think it was a beautiful picture,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Friday. “I’ll tell you, I think Christians think it was a beautiful picture.”
Inside the West Wing, the impulse was largely to spin the event as a success. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, had encouraged the idea and transported the Bible in her designer Max Mara purse, and a cadre of aides had accompanied Trump on his walk to the church. In the aftermath, aides tried to reassure the president that the damaging story line was just more “fake news” and that he had, in fact, pulled off a historic moment.
In an interview with CBS News Radio on Friday, Vice President Pence — who was absent from the photo op — said that he had been encouraged to remain at the White House “out of an abundance of caution.”
“But I would have been happy to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with President Trump,” Pence said. He added, “We don’t allow places of worship to be burned in this country. We don’t stand by while churches or synagogues or mosques are vandalized. The president made that very clear in his walk.”
Trump’s five years as a presidential candidate and president are littered with controversies that spark outrage in the moment, only to be largely forgotten and fail to sway public sentiment. But some episodes, such as his impeachment earlier this year and his handling of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, are more definitional — and Lafayette Square has the potential to join that category.
Terry McAuliffe served as the Democratic governor of Virginia during the Charlottesville incident, when the president heralded “very fine people on both sides” of the rally. McAuliffe said that, as with Charlottesville, the Lafayette Square photo op revealed that “the man has no moral compass, no moral core.”
“Charlottesville and the Bible incident are the two biggest moral failures of this president on display,” McAuliffe said. “Each time, we wanted the president to rise above it and say we’re better than this, and both times he did nothing but fan the flames and create more division.”
The campaign of former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, released a video Friday that sought to use the Lafayette Square moment against Trump. Against the backdrop of images of violent chaos from that evening, a narrator intones, “He’s afraid he looks too weak. So he has tear gas and flash grenades used on peaceful protesters just for a photo op.”
The video concludes: “Where is Donald Trump? Too scared to face the people. Too small to meet the moment. Too weak to lead.”
Trump’s critics say his instinct to produce powerful imagery backfired in this instance, forcing Americans to evaluate his character — and not in a way that necessarily accrues for the president.