The Bible stunt may be turning into a watershed moment in the Trump Administration, the beginning of a slide into utter ignominy. And we’re getting a clearer picture now of what really happened on Monday when Trump decided to use a church and a Bible for a photo op.
According to How Trump’s Idea for a Photo Op Led to Havoc in a Park in the New York Times, The whole mess began on Sunday night. That’s when protests near the White House caused the Secret Service to escort Trump into the White House bunker, while exterior lights were turned off as if it were Halloween and the residents were out of candy.
But then, news stories began to portray Trump as afraid and hiding from the turmoil. Trump decided he was gonna show ’em.
On Monday, an enraged Trump wanted to send federal troops into U.S. cities, an idea opposed by advisers. This was followed by the famously unhinged conference call in which Trump yelled at state governors for being weak, and in which Secretary of Defense Mark Esper tells governors to “dominate the battle space.”
But then Trump, or more likely Ivanka, came up with another plan — Trump could show his strength by marching across Lafayette Park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by fire the night before. Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also contributed to the plan.
What could go wrong?
The plan was to have Trump give a statement in the Rose Garden a bit after 6 pm and then walk to St. John’s with the press corps looking on. But the presence of protesters in the park was a problem. Attorney General Bill Barr was given the job of clearing the park of protesters, because we can’t have Mr. Tough Guy seen in the vacinity of peaceful protesters, can we? From the New York Times:
Reinforcements were summoned. Just before noon, an alert went out to every Washington-area agent with Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE, telling them to prepare to assist with any demonstration, according to an email labeled with a “high” severity. The F.B.I. deployed its elite hostage rescue team, highly armed and trained agents more accustomed to arresting dangerous suspects than dealing with riots. And ICE deployed its “special response teams” to protect agency facilities and be on call for more.
But others were reluctant to help. Mr. Trump was so aggressive on the call with governors that when Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia received a request to send up to 5,000 of his state’s National Guard troops, he grew concerned. His staff contacted Ms. [Washington, DC Mayor Muriel] Bowser’s office and discovered that the mayor had not even been notified of the request. At that point, Mr. Northam turned the White House down. Similarly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York called off buses of National Guard troops that were to head to Washington.
Throughout the afternoon, demonstrators continued to gather in Lafayette Park.
By midafternoon on Monday, protesters had gathered again on H Street at the north side of Lafayette Square, this time peacefully. The Rev. Gini Gerbasi, the rector of St. John’s Church in Georgetown and a former assistant rector at St. John’s, arrived around 4 p.m. with cases of water for the demonstrators. Joining her on the church patio were about 20 clergy members who passed out snacks.
Next to them on the patio, a group affiliated with Black Lives Matter mixed water and soap in squeeze bottles as emergency eye wash if protesters were tear-gassed by the police.
By about 5 o’clock trucks loaded with National Guard troops were arriving in the area. (I haven’t seen from which state(s) these troops were deployed.) The Secret Service had snipers on the roof of the West Wing. The White House Press Corps was summoned to the Rose Garden to hear a statement scheduled for 6:15. As the reporters assembled, troops arrived in Lafayette Park and put on gas masks.
At 6:17 p.m., a large phalanx of officers wearing Secret Service uniforms began advancing on protesters, climbing or jumping over barriers at the edge of the square at H Street and Madison Place. Officials said later that the police warned protesters to disperse three times, but if they did, reporters on the scene as well as many demonstrators did not hear it.
Some form of chemical agent was fired at protesters, flash bang grenades went off and mounted police moved toward the crowds. “People were dropping to the ground” at the sound of bangs and pops that sounded like gunfire, Ms. Gerbasi said. “We started seeing and smelling tear gas, and people were running at us.”
By 6:30 p.m., she said, “Suddenly the police were on the patio of St. John’s Church in a line, literally pushing and shoving people off of the patio.”
No one associated with St. John’s or the Episcopal Diocese of Washington had been notified about the White House plans. The people at the church said they were given no instructions or warnings; the troops or police or whoever they were just showed up and started shoving.
White House correspondents were still waiting in the Rose Garden. The statement scheduled for 6:15 was postponed to 6:30, and finally happened at 6:43. One assumes Trump was waiting for word that all those nasty protesters, Episcopal clergy, and seminarians had been cleared out of the way.
Trump spoke for seven minutes. It was a strange statement, obviously written for him since it was in recognizably proficient English. Here is just a bit —
That is why I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America. I am mobilizing all available federal resources — civilian and military — to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights. Therefore, the following measures are going into effect immediately:
First, we are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country. We will end it now. Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.
If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.
He finished the talk with “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place. Thank you very much.” And then the walk to St. John’s began.
I understand the White House released a video of the march accompanied by “triumphal music,” but I haven’t been able to find it.
Trump was accompanied by Barr, Esper, Meadows, Kushner, and Ivanka, the Times says. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and national security adviser Robert O’Brien appear in some of the photos of the Bible Stunt, so they must have gotten there somehow. And the fellow in military fatigues is chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.
Now we get to the Bible Stunt itself, which is brilliantly described by Robin Givhans, fashion critic for the Washington Post.
None of them was wearing a mask, because that would remind everyone that the world is still facing a pandemic, and besides, the masks would ruin the picture. Everyone stood apart, but not six feet apart. They didn’t lower their head in prayer or silent tribute to George Floyd — the man whose death after nearly nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer sparked this uprising. Their arms dangled at their side. No one seemed to know where to look or what to do or how long to stand there. …
… The photographs in front of St. John’s captured the president’s fundamental discomfort with what it means to exist out in the open where people do not soothe him with flattery, where brute force is an accelerant, not an answer, and where imperfect lives spill outside their borders. Trump worked so hard for his flaccid, sanitized photograph: a man standing with nothing but white bureaucrats — most of them men — on the plaza in front of a neatly boarded-up house of worship. Trump isn’t even really at the church; he’s in its vicinity.
At one point, standing alone, he’s holding the Bible not like it’s a source of enduring comfort but like it’s a soiled diaper.
Do read the whole piece; it’s wonderful. Now, back to the New York Times:
The president’s movement surprised nearly everyone, as he intended, including law enforcement. The Washington police chief said he was notified only moments beforehand. Park Police commanders on the scene were as surprised as everyone else to see the president in the park.
I’ve remarked before that the White House has a pattern of enacting things without consulting with the entities expected to carry out those things. This is mostly incompetent staff work, I think, but on this occasion it may be that Trump just wanted to surprise everyone.
Anyway, without saying anything, Trump got his photo taken holding the upside down Bible, and then he returned to the White House.
The police and other forces pursued demonstrators around the capital the rest of the evening, with military helicopters even swooping low overhead in what were called shows of force. Mr. Barr and General Milley at different points roamed the streets. … By Tuesday afternoon, the crowds were back and even bigger.
As I wrote yesterday, the stunt mightily pissed off the Washington Episcopalians. By now, we’ve heard from a lot more Christians who were heartifly offended by the stunt. Only Trump’s base of white conservative evangelicals appear to approve of it. Even some white evangelicals were distressed, though.
Later that evening, helicopters flew low over the demonstrations, low enough to knock individuals off their feet. There are reports this was ordered by Trump himself.
The last 48 hours have seen multiple press reports of people who appear to be federal law enforcement patrolling in the vicinity of the White House, refusing to identify who they are or what agency they represent. According to a report this afternoon from Garrett Haake of NBC News federal law enforcement officers of some kind pushed the crowd perimeter back from the White House but refused to identify themselves, what agency they represented and had removed all insignia or name plates that might identify them.
Pentagon officials insist that neither General Milley or Defense Secretary Esper knew about the photo op plan or the tear gassing of demonstrators in advance; they were just going along with whatever Trump was doing. Even so, a Pentagon policy adviser resigned in disgust over Esper’s participation in the stunt.
Esper is in hot water with Trump, too. This morning he said he does not support using the Insurrection Act to deploy federal troops to cities for riot control. Esper is now said to be in “precarious standing” with the White House.
Last night the Trump campaign demanded that news media “correct” the accounts of tear gas being used in Lafayette Park. It wasn’t tear gas, the campaign says. Yeah, it was.
General Mike Mullen, who was chair of the Joint Chiefs during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, wrote that he is disgusted with the Bible Stunt.
It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.
Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.
I think if Trump pushes his Insurrection Act plan any further, he risks getting a big refusal from the top brass of the military. The brass doesn’t like Trump, and I don’t think they will allow themselves to be pushed into bringing dishonor on their branches of service. We’ll see.
Greg Sargent writes that Congress isn’t being briefed on any of Trump’s “plans” for the use of force against demonstrations. This is not how Washington normally functions.
Trump now says he was “inspecting” the White House bunker, not hiding in it.
Today I’m hearing from several sources that Derek Chauvin is now being charged with 2nd degree murder in the death of George Floyd, and other officers at the scene are being charged with aiding and abetting.
See also ‘This can’t be happening’: An oral history of 48 surreal, violent, biblical minutes in Washington in the Washington post. Bottom line, Trump utterly screwed himself with the Bible Stunt.