“I’m not going to critique other people’s performances, I can speak for myself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday after a GOP luncheon, just weeks after he had criticized former president Barack Obama for challenging Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
On Monday night, Trump walked from the White House across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he posed for pictures holding up a Bible. Before his trek, federal authorities used rubber bullets, flash bangs and smoke canisters to clear protesters gathered near the park. They have been protesting the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer.
By Tuesday morning, the White House had produced a 30-second campaign-style video about the episode, set to triumphant music, all drawing sharp denunciations from Democrats but a muted response from many Republicans and some applause from other GOP senators.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), newly installed as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, defended the use of flash bangs and other militaristic tactics to clear the area by the church, saying there was nothing wrong with that approach.
“No, not given what we’ve seen the last three nights in front of the White House, incredibly dangerous,” Rubio said, suggesting that injuries to Secret Service officers justified the strong show of force.
He also said that he believed the motivation behind the timing was about the pending 7 p.m. curfew, announced earlier Monday by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, and not the president’s walk to the church.
“It was time to clear the square given the last three nights. It was known that it needed to be clear,” Rubio said in the early afternoon.
Soon after, Justice Department officials confirmed that Attorney General William P. Barr personally intervened to ask federal authorities to extend the perimeter and push back the protesters so that Trump could safely walk to the church.
Some Republicans applauded the tough tone the president took during his Rose Garden address, which included demands for governors and mayors to “dominate” their streets.
“This can’t go on. So hopefully, you know, the president talking that way will put a little spine in some of these governors that aren’t calling out the National Guard, to the extent that they need to restore order,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Johnson expressed his dismay at a report on the Fox News show hosted by Tucker Carlson about beatings endured by citizens at the hands of violent protesters.
Asked for his opinion on Trump’s church visit, Johnson had less to offer.
“I haven’t seen it,” he said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) continued his call for Trump to use the Insurrection Act to allow active-duty military to help state and local police, decrying violence in other cities and applauding the lower amount of looting Monday in Washington.
“The only way to end this insurrection is the overwhelming display of force,” Cotton said in a statement.
Some Republicans opposed calling in the military.
“That should be our last resort. I don’t think the Pentagon is keen on getting brought into this unless they absolutely have to,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican leader, reiterated to reporters that he would like to see Trump adopt a softer tone more broadly and that he is opposed to using the military to contain protesters on U.S. streets, as Trump has advocated.
“I would prefer that these things be handled by the state and local authorities,” Thune said. “You want to de-escalate, rather than escalate.”
Asked whether Trump is projecting calm, Thune said the president “has his moments.”
“But, you know, I mean, as you know, it lasts generally as long as the next tweet,” he added.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) decried the violence that had been seen on previous nights in Washington but voiced strong support for the constitutional right to protest.
“I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” Sasse said in a statement that made no explicit mention of Trump but said that all public servants “should be lowering the temperature.”
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, said he did not think Trump’s visit to St. John’s — a frequent place of worship for some past presidents — was helpful.
“Obviously, if your question is, should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo op, the answer is no,” Scott said during an event hosted by Politico.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is locked in a tough reelection bid in her Democratic-leaning state, said Trump “came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peacefully protest.”
“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once,” Collins said.
Reading from a Bible, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Tuesday for “a time to heal” and pleaded for Trump to become a “healer in chief and not a fanner of the flame” in a direct contrast to the president’s actions Monday evening.
Pelosi, who had just signed legislation designed to try to help a Muslim minority in China, held up a Bible just as Trump did after walking to the church Monday, a day after the church basement had been set on fire by protesters.
She read from Ecclesiastes’ “A Time for Everything” from the Old Testament, and from a speech that then-President George H.W. Bush delivered after video emerged in 1992 of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King.
“Let’s focus on the time to heal,” Pelosi said.
Senate Democrats tried to pass a resolution condemning Trump “for ordering federal officers to use gas and rubber bullets against the Americans who were peaceably protesting in Lafayette Square.” McConnell blocked the resolution.
Some Republicans were critical of Trump but struggled with the reasoning.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who previously directed a youth ministry, said he didn’t object to Trump’s trip to the church — but questioned the timing of the visit.
“If he had gone out there yesterday morning, rather than right before curfew, that would have been a nonissue,” Lankford said.
But Lankford said making the trip right after a Rose Garden statement on the need to crack down on violent protesters “distracted from the message he had just given.”
“The whole appearance at that time, at that moment — right before curfew, everyone knew there were going to be protesters in that area — I thought was the wrong timing for that message,” Lankford said.