Christal Hayes, USA TODAY
Published 3:37 p.m. ET June 2, 2020 | Updated 4:43 p.m. ET June 2, 2020
Police used tear gas to clear protesters from a park before President Trump walked over to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
WASHINGTON – Republican senators were split on President Donald Trump’s decision Monday to push back protesters from an area surrounding the White House so he could visit a historic church across the street to take a photo with a Bible.
“I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in a statement. While there is no right to riot or destroy property, he said, there is a “fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest.”
The split reaction from Republicans came after another day of protests in the nation’s capital and across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
During a Monday speech, the president threatened to send the military if cities and states did not put an end to violent protests. As he spoke from the White House, police outside forcibly removed protesters gathered in Lafayette Square with riot shields, flash bangs and chemical agents. A few minutes later, Trump walked through the park and posed for photos with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, which suffered slight damage after it was set on fire by protesters late Sunday night.
Many Democrats criticized the event as a stunt while some GOP lawmakers joined them in condemning Trump’s actions.
Sen. Tim Scott, the Senate’s sole black Republican, said he did not approve of the move.
“As it relates to the tear gas situation and the Bible… it’s not something that I thought was helpful or what I would do without any question,” he told Politico. “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.'”
Even close confidants of the president, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also questioned the decision.
“I don’t know what the point the president was trying to make,” he said. “Trying to restore order is a good thing. Attack on a church is a terrible thing. I don’t think it advanced the ball one way or another.”
But other Republicans applauded the president, arguing it sent a message to the rest of the country that the president was going to restore order and keep Americans safe.
“I thought what the president did in visiting the church was not only appropriate, it was needed,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told reporters. “It sent a message to the American people that its government is going to protect the innocent.”
‘Most of you are weak’: Trump rails at the nation’s governors, urges crackdown on violence
Some Republicans pointed to violence that has broken out in recent days, including in front of the White House, and accused protesters of provoking authorities.
“They know that the police have to move forward on them. That will trigger the use of tear gas. And it plays right into the imagery that they want,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “That was provocation that was created deliberately for national television.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on President Donald Trump to be a “healer in chief” and not a “fanner of the flame” as the nation reels from mass protests over the treatment of black people in the United States. (June 2)
House Democrats are demanding information about the chain of events that led to peaceful protesters being forcibly removed from the park.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, asked the director of the Secret Service to appear before the committee to brief them on the incident, writing that he was “stunned, disturbed, and furious at the sight of federal authorities tear-gassing peaceful protesters.”
Asked Tuesday whether the president’s conduct merited censure, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he believed it did warrant such a move but noted the full Democratic caucus had not discussed taking that step. Censuring Trump was discussed last year in the House as an alternative to impeaching him, but Democrats ultimately decided against censure, which is a formal statement of disapproval.
“It is certainly an action worthy and appropriate to censure and to criticize. It was a terrible act,” Hoyer said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “It was an act indicating the total lack of understanding and empathy with the anger and frustration and cry for justice that was being put out simply to facilitate a photo op obviously designed for political purposes, not designed to bring the country together.”
U.S. president Donald Trump said he would deploy the military if state officials didn’t quell the violence amidst protests after George Floyd’s death.
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