“Trump defends his ‘photo op’ while visiting fire-damaged Washington church”
June 3, 2020 | 10:08pm
President Trump holds a Bible at St. John’s Church across from the White House on Monday.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
But Trump said he didn’t know anti-police-brutality protesters, who had occupied the area for days, would be cleared out of the way ahead of the visit.
“Now, when I said, ‘Go to the church’, I didn’t know protesters or not. Nobody tells me that. They say, ‘Yes, sir. We’ll go to the church.’ So we walked over to the church,” Trump said in a radio interview.
The visit on Monday evening followed clashes minutes earlier as US Park Police and other officers in riot gear used batons, pepper balls and smoke canisters to push back protesters and journalists.
“I heard how nice and wonderful the protesters were over there. Really? Then why did they burn down the church the day before?” Trump said.
“It was very fast,” Trump said. “I did hold up a Bible. I think that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”
The St. John’s Episcopal Church was built in 1816 and every president since James Madison has attended a service there. An area of the building’s basement was set on fire Sunday, shortly after activists stole the church’s American flag and added it to a bonfire in the middle of H Street near the White House.
Nearby, arsonists also torched the headquarters of the AFL-CIO union, a building that houses restrooms in Lafayette Park and multiple cars.
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who accompanied Trump on the walk, said he wasn’t aware of plans for what he called a “photo op.”
“I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware a photo op was happening,” Esper said.
“Look, I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical and try and stay out of situations that may appear political and sometimes I’m successful at doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful.”
Whether protesters rallying were removed for Trump’s visit remains hotly debated.
Park Police said they cleared the area because they were attacked with bottles and bricks while attempting to install new fencing.
But DC Police Chief Peter Newsham, whose force didn’t participate in the action, noted Wednesday that “the fencing didn’t happen until well after the movement of the president.”
Park Police denied a widely circulated claim that they deployed tear gas near the church, but acknowledged using smoke canisters and pepper balls, which can similarly irritate eyes. Esper said National Guard members assisting police also didn’t use tear gas.
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