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All the Absurd Details We’ve Learned About Trump’s Church Photo Op

Law enforcement gas demonstrators next to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, in a moment combining the aspiring authoritarianism and chaotic bumbling that has defined the Trump presidency, federal law enforcement officials forcibly removed a group of peaceful protesters from a park near the White House so President Trump could stand in front of a church and brandish a Bible.

In the nearly two days since, a raft of reports have come out about how law enforcement decided to clear the park, why Trump made the trip, and who played a role in coordinating it. Here’s what we know:

Trump was cranky about coverage of his retreat to a White House bunker

On Friday, Trump was taken to an underground bunker for roughly an hour while protesters gathered outside the White House, CNN reported Monday. Trump now says he wasn’t hiding from anything, merely inspecting the bunker. In any case, he didn’t like media coverage of his retreat. The idea to go to the church was reportedly a way to show the country he wasn’t hiding from anything.

Ivanka egged him on

The Times reports that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, “urged” him to take the short walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where a small fire briefly burned during protests Sunday night. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has given her even more credit, telling some people that the whole thing was her idea. In either case, Ivanka later accompanied her dad to the church, carrying a Bible in her $1,540 handbag.

Military leaders are claiming ignorance

Both Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley claim they didn’t know in advance about the violent dispersal of protesters or that they would be used as props in a photo shoot. Esper told NBC News Tuesday that he thought Trump was leading him to Lafayette Park to talk to troops and to see a damaged bathroom. “I didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “I wanted to see how much damage actually happened.” Esper maintained Wednesday that he didn’t know there would be a photo op at the church.

William Barr personally ordered the protesters cleared

The order to clear the path from the White House to the church was personally given by Attorney General William Barr, according to multiple reports. It came after Barr was surprised Monday evening that the perimeter around the White House hadn’t been extended by an additional block, as was decided the day before; he then told police to get it done immediately. One official told the Post that the park’s clearing had nothing to do with Trump’s imminent amble, but that hasn’t sopped some Democrats from calling for Barr’s head over the issue. Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted Tuesday that he should be “impeached and removed immediately.”

Law enforcement says protesters weren’t peaceful. Everyone else says they were.

Protesters, reporters, and clergy in Lafayette Park at the time of its clearing say everyone was peaceful when law enforcement in riot gear fired pepper balls and flash-bang grenades at demonstrators. In a statement to the Washington Post, acting chief of the U.S. Park Police Gregory Monahan disputed that though. He said protesters became “combative,” threw “projectiles” and “attempted to grab officers’ weapons.” President Trump has also pushed back against the description of Lafayette Park protesters as “peaceful” with a nonsensical argument about how the church was lit on fire in the night.

A debate over tear gas

Monahan says no tear gas was used to clear the park, despite many reports to the contrary. However, he admits smoke canisters and pepper balls were used. The Trump campaign has demanded a correction from “every news organization which reported the tear gas lie.”

As the Post reports, the difference is largely semantic:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Riot control agents (sometimes referred to as “tear gas”) are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.”

And, according to the CDC, “several different compounds” fall under this definition, and are employed by security forces, including military and police, in riot control situations.

No one thought about what Trump would do when he got to the church

With their attention turned to how to get Trump through a throng of protesters, White House officials tell the Times they gave little thought to what the president would do once he got there. And so he stood, showing off a Bible, and posing for photos.

All the Absurd Details About Trump’s Church Photo Op