White House: 'No regrets' on clearing protesters from Lafayette Square for Trump photo op

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended last Monday’s widely condemned move to violently disperse peaceful protesters from a park so that President Trump could walk to a church and pose there holding a Bible. Many, including Trump’s own former secretary of defense, have criticized the use of force against people exercising their First Amendment right to assembly.

McEnany countered such criticisms at Monday’s press briefing, using the never-apologize tactic that is a favorite of the president himself

“There’s no regrets on the part of this White House,” she said in response to a journalist’s question about the clearing of Lafayette Square, which is across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. After the protesters were pushed back (whether tear gas or another agent was used remains a matter of dispute), Trump and several of his top advisers walked to St. John’s Church, where every U.S. president has worshipped for the last two centuries. 

Riot police clearing Lafayette Square and the surrounding area for President Trump to be able to walk through for a photo op in front of St. John's Church on June 1. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

A fire had been started in the church the previous evening, which saw some looting and violence in parts of the district.

Trump did not enter the church that Monday evening, nor did he meet with its clergy or even open the Bible handed him by his daughter Ivanka. Instead, he held up the book and, once the images he sought were captured, returned to the White House, where he sat through another night of furious protests. Those protests would continue throughout the week, culminating in a march on Washington this past Sunday that was notably joined by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Romney is the first sitting U.S. senator from the GOP to join the protesters, in what could only be seen as a rebuke of Trump by one of the party’s leading figures. Romney was also the only Republican to vote in favor of convicting Trump on one of the two articles of impeachment brought before the Senate earlier this year. 

Questions remain about who ordered the clearing of the protesters. The White House is eager to have those questions directed elsewhere, as McEnany made clear Monday. “Many of those decisions were not made here within the White House,” the relatively new press secretary said, adding that the decision to expand the security perimeter around the presidential residence was initially made by Attorney General William Barr. 

She said that the U.S. Park Police reached the same conclusion about needing to expel the protesters from Lafayette Square “independently, when they saw all the violence.” It is not clear what violence she was referring to, since eyewitness accounts strongly suggested that the protests had been peaceful.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany at a Monday press briefing. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“We stand by those actions,” McEnany said, speaking specifically of the aggressive tactics the U.S. Park Police used against the protesters. She said those actions were justified because protesters had refused orders to move and began throwing things. Numerous observers who attended the protests Monday have said that such assertions about the protesters’ behavior are untrue.

The White House turned the president’s short walk into a campaign-style video, but few outside Trump’s most loyal supporters saw it as the sign of strength he plainly wanted to project. Even the evangelical leader Pat Robertson, otherwise a reliable ally, deemed the clearing of the protesters “not cool.”

Perhaps the most damaging rebuke to last Monday’s military action came from James Mattis, the widely revered Marine general who stepped down from his role as secretary of defense last year after disagreements with Trump over American military involvement in Syria. Mattis said he was “angry and appalled” that troops of the U.S. military “would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

Mattis’s successor, Mark Esper, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Trump on his walk to St. John’s, and both have since mounted efforts at image rehabilitation, with press reports describing how each tried to dissuade Trump from invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to authorize the military to quell protests. 

But the image of the two military leaders walking across the park alongside Trump, with Milley wearing his combat fatigues, underscored what critics say is Trump’s troubling disregard for the limits on how and where a president can deploy the U.S. military.

Standing in front of St. John's Church on June 1, from left: Attorney General William Barr, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, President Trump and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Barr, who also accompanied Trump to St. John’s, has likewise attempted to distance himself from the controversial Lafayette Square decision. Speaking on Sunday to Margaret Brennan of “Face the Nation,” the nation’s top law enforcement officer said the U.S. Park Police wanted to expand the “perimeter around the White House” and that he gave approval the following afternoon, just hours before Trump spoke in the Rose Garden on the need to maintain order and, from there, set out to the church on foot.

“The operation was run by the Park Police,” Barr told Brennan. “The Park Police was facing what they considered to be a very rowdy and noncompliant crowd.” A Trump loyalist who has rarely challenged the president, Barr maintained that protesters were throwing “projectiles,” even after Brennan pointed out that her own colleagues testified to the contrary.

“I was there. They were thrown. I saw them thrown,” he countered. 

McEnany’s statements on Monday seem to place the ultimate responsibility for clearing the park on Barr, not the Park Police. And the extent to which Gen. Milley and Secretary Esper were involved remains unclear (active-duty military members did not participate in the incident).

Sen Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who joined the protests in front of the White House last week, has asked the inspector general of the Justice Department to investigate last Monday’s use of force, calling Trump’s visit to St. John’s an “ugly propaganda event.”

And as McEnany took to the podium on Monday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made public a letter to Trump in which they asked him to remove the barricades that have for several days surrounded Lafayette Square, which they charged he has turned into “a militarized zone.”

The Democratic leaders asked the president to “tear down these walls,” an unmistakable reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous call to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall. 

Protesters have decorated the barriers around Lafayette Square with signs against police brutality and the Trump administration. The district’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has renamed a stretch of 16th Street right in front of St. John’s as Black Lives Matter Plaza. She also had the words “Black lives matter” painted in enormous yellow letters on a two-block stretch of 16th Street extending north from Lafayette Square. The words can be seen from outer space

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