Republicans senators pushed back against reports of President Donald Trump’s photo op in front of a church Monday night, saying teargassing to disperse the crowd of protestors either did not occur or the protests were comprised of “professional agitators” who sought to “trigger police action.”
Their comments came Tuesday, despite video evidence and first-hand accounts showing a non-hostile crowd that was dispersed by riot shields, rubber bullets, tear gas and police horses so the president could walk across the street to pose for the photo with a Bible in his hand.
“I don’t think they did use tear gas. Do you have information I don’t have?” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told Newsweek.
“I haven’t seen it,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the tear gas was justified because it occurred about 30 minutes before a citywide curfew began at the nation’s capital.
“There had to be action taken,” the Sunshine State lawmaker said. “These folks are professionals at what they’re doing, these protesters.”
As President Donald Trump made his first national address since the May 25 killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis white police officer that has sparked protests—some violent—to erupt across the country, federal law enforcement agencies began forcibly dispersing protesters gathered in Lafayette Square across from the North Lawn of the White House. Trump threatened to take unprecedented action and deploy military troops on U.S. soil to cities across the nation that cannot stem the violent unrest.
Meanwhile, tear gas canisters were lobbed. Rubber bullets were shot. American citizens, including members of the media, were hit and shoved by authorities ahead of the curfew. Minutes later, the president walked through Lafayette Square to reportedly show a sign of force and stand before the St. John’s Episcopal Church that was set on fire by looters Sunday night. A top bishop rebuked him for not offering a prayer there.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he did not think the tactics were an “abuse of power.” “I think the president getting out and the president seeing the damage caused by the rioting was a good thing.”
Hawley, like Inhofe, said he doubted tear gas was ever used. A local WTOP reporter earlier in the day cited an anonymous U.S. Park Police source that denied their agents ever deployed the irritant. The USPP did not respond to Newsweek‘s inquiry. However, other law enforcement departments, including the FBI, Military Police, Secret Service and local police, were present, and numerous videos and accounts showed evidence that tear gas was utilized.
“I’ve heard conflicting reports myself about was it tear gas, just smoke that was deployed, who was responsible for it, did [they] know the president was going to come through?” Hawley added.
Despite the various defenses that Republicans had for Trump, some chose to buck the commander-in-chief for the photo op and use of tear gas against peaceful protesters.
“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters to 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,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said. “I thought that the president came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peacefully protest.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lone black Republican in the Senate, said during an event hosted by Politico that the president’s actions were inappropriate.
“There is a fundamental—a constitutional—right to protest,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Even one of Trump’s strongest allies in the chamber questioned the president’s motive for taking the brief trip to the church. But he did not go so far as to outright condemn the use of tear gas.
“I don’t know what the purpose of the trip was,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Newsweek. “I mean, to show appreciation for the church? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him what he was trying to accomplish.”
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