On Monday evening, President Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and declared himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” At the same time, in nearby Lafayette Square, federal law enforcement officials charged a group of peaceful protesters and fired smoke canisters at them. Minutes later, Trump walked across the empty park to St. John’s Episcopal Church and posed for awkward pictures holding the Bible.
The plan to pose at the church was reportedly hatched because Trump was upset that word got out about him hiding in the White House bunker Friday night. The Washington Post reports that Trump also wanted to “demonstrate the streets in Washington were under control.” And so the streets were cleared.
The decision to forcefully and violently eject peaceful protesters, which Park Police now says was unrelated to Trump’s visit, has drawn widespread criticism from religious and political leaders.
The Right Reverend Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, told the Post she is “outraged.”
“I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” she told the paper. “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence. We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.” On Twitter, she accused Trump of use the church and the Bible as a prop.
Reverend Gini Gerbasi, who was at the church as a part of a group of clergy supporting protesters, told Religion News Service that she was tear gassed and forced to flee the area in front of the church. “That’s what it was for: to clear that patio so that man could stand in front of that building with a Bible,” she said.
In a statement, the Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also criticized Trump:
This evening, the President of the United States stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, lifted up a bible, and had pictures of himself taken. In so doing, he used a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes. This was done in a time of deep hurt and pain in our country, and his action did nothing to help us or to heal us.
Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser called the clearing of the park prior to the 7 p.m. curfew “shameful.”
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, joined in on the criticism, tweeting that Trump is “using the American military against the American people.” Biden wrote: “He tear-gassed peaceful protesters and fired rubber bullets. For a photo.”
Biden unloaded on Trump again during a Tuesday morning speech in Philadelphia addressing the widespread unrest. “When peaceful protestors dispersed in order for a president, a president, from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House, using tear gas and flash grenades in order to stage a photo op — a photo op — on one of the most historic churches in the country, or at least in Washington, DC, we can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle, more interested in serving the passions of his base the the needs of the people in his care,” Biden said.
By 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, the White House had turned Trump’s visit into a soaring campaign video that made him look like a conquering hero. It excluded the violent efforts to clear the peaceful protesters.
Criticism for Trump’s stunt came from as far away as Australia, where the prime minister has called for the Australian Embassy to investigate an attack on a news crew from the country in Lafayette Park. Video of the incident shows a camera man getting punched in the face.
Naturally, some defended Trump, including many of his most ardent religious allies. But at least one Republican senator has spoken out against Trump’s actions. “I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse said Tuesday. Sasse won his primary last month.