With heavy-handed tactics, Trump's church photo-op backfires

It was quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops.
Image: President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC
President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Yesterday afternoon at the White House Rose Garden, Donald Trump declared himself "an ally of all peaceful protesters." But as the president spoke, there were noises of unrest audible in the background, and it wasn't immediately clear why.

That soon changed.

Moments before President Donald Trump vowed to use military might to stop rioting, police backed by the National Guard stormed into a peaceful protest outside the White House and scattered a large group of people protesting unprovoked police violence against African Americans. At the time, none of the protesters or nearby journalists knew the reason for clearing the street. But the purpose became clear as soon as Trump finished his speech in the Rose Garden.

For those who've never visited the White House, it's worth noting that immediately north of the building, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, is a public park called Lafayette Square. And on the other side of the park is St. John's Episcopal Church, a congregation sometimes referred to as the Church of the Presidents given its history and location.

Yesterday, there was a group of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square. There was no violence or unrest, and those assembled in the park had every right to be there. (There was a curfew in Washington, D.C., last night, but it had not yet taken effect.) Nevertheless, shortly after Trump touted himself as "an ally of all peaceful protesters," law enforcement launched a rather extraordinary offensive against the demonstrators, which included, among other things, firing tear gas and flash-bang shells at those who had peaceably assembled.

Once Lafayette Square had been cleared by force, Trump walked across the park -- the length of a city block -- stood in front of St. John's, held up a Bible, posed for the cameras, and then walked back. The Republican did not go inside the church; he did not read from the Bible; he did not pray or engage in any form of worship; he didn't even visit with a pastor.

"Is that your Bible?" a reporter asked. "It's a Bible," Trump replied.

It was quite possibly the most ridiculous presidential photo-op in the history of presidential photo-ops.

On the New York Times' online homepage this morning, there was a 13-word headline that summarized what transpired nicely: "Peaceful Rally Dispersed With Tear Gas So Trump Can Pose at a Church." It's apt because it's precisely what happened.

Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Paul Ryan, told Politico, "We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act. The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten."

A senior White House official told Axios that when they saw the tear gas clearing the crowd for Trump to walk to the church with his entourage, "I've never been more ashamed. I'm really honestly disgusted. I'm sick to my stomach."

But perhaps no one was more disgusted than relevant religious leaders. The New York Times reported that the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said church officials were not told of the White House's plan and expressed outrage at the use of riot-control tactics.

"He did not pray," the bishop, Mariann E. Budde, said in an interview. Referring to the death of the black man in police custody that set off the protests, she added: "He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that, and we are left to pick up the pieces."

The article added that a visiting priest attending St. John's was sprayed with tear gas as she tried to help scared demonstrators leave the area. The bishop told the Washington Post that she's "outraged," not only by the heavy-handed tactics, but also by Trump's willingness to use a church "as a prop."

Just when it seems the president can't go any lower, he finds a way.