Late Monday afternoon, a group of peaceful protestors were removed by force from Lafayette Square, across from the north side of the White House. Once a path was cleared, Donald Trump walked across the park, posed briefly in front of a nearby church, held up a Bible, and then returned to the White House.
It was, by any fair measure, among the most ridiculous presidential photo-ops anyone has ever seen, at least in this country. A New York Times report noted this morning, "[W]hen the history of the Trump presidency is written, the clash at Lafayette Square may be remembered as one of its defining moments."
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 in the next breath, that same official added, in reference to Team Trump's reaction to the ugly display, "[T]hey're all celebrating it. They're very, very proud of themselves."
At least, that was the posture late Monday. Whether those same White House officials are still feeling a sense of pride and celebration today is less clear.
Yesterday, multiple Senate Republicans publicly expressed their discomfort with Team Trump and its heavy-handed tactics in Lafayette Square. Even Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a prominent presidential ally, 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 members of the president's own team seemed quite eager to distance themselves from what transpired. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told NBC News yesterday that when Trump led him to St. John's Episcopal Church for his photo-op, he hadn't know where the entourage was headed.
"I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," Esper said Tuesday night in an exclusive interview with NBC News. Esper said he believed they were going to observe the vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square, which is near the church. "I didn't know where I was going," Esper said. "I wanted to see how much damage actually happened."
It is, to be sure, a difficult story to accept at face value. But I was also struck by the larger context: the Pentagon chief was willing to speak on the record about an ongoing controversy that he apparently wants no part of.
Indeed, by Esper's telling, he basically stumbled into an impromptu parade of Trump administration officials, walking to a church for no reason, through a park where peaceful protestors had just been removed by force.
One of the first signs of trouble when a group of people know they've screwed up: those hoping to avoid blame start effectively saying, "Don't blame me; I just work here."
House Democrats have begun demanding answers from relevant agencies about what transpired in Lafayette Square. Watch this space.
Postscript: The White House apparently began arguing yesterday that the peaceful protestors in the park weren't subjected to literal tear gas. Rather, the argument goes, security forces fired smoke canisters and "pepper balls."
On the flip side, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, according to CDC standards, that was tear gas. Second, when a presidential team wants to engage in a semantics debate over the subtle nuances of tear gas, it's fighting a losing battle.
Team Trump has effectively been reduced to arguing, "It's not tear gas; it's just a gas that generates tears. That's totally different." What the White House should be working on is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.