How police pushed aside protesters ahead of Trump’s controversial church photo

The forceful removal of demonstrators from a park near the White House minutes before President Donald Trump walked to a Washington church may become a defining event of Trump’s presidency. 

U.S. and military police drove protesters out of Lafayette Square, located between the White House and the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, shortly before a presidential photo op with a Bible at the church on June 1.

Images of the confrontation further divided a nation already reeling from days of protests, some violent. The demonstrations followed the death of George Floyd, 46, an African American man who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for more than 8 minutes.

Lafayette Square and the church photo triggered more outrage. The Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said Trump “took the symbols sacred to our tradition and stood in front of a house of prayer in full expectation that would be a celebratory moment.”

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president wanted to send “a very powerful message that we will not be overcome by looting, by rioting, by burning” and compared Trump’s visit to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s inspection of bomb damage during the London Blitz in World War II.

The White House also tweeted a 29-second video on June 2 showing Trump’s walk.

How Trump’s visit to St. John’s unfolded (all times approximate):

Sunday, May 31, 10 p.m.

Demonstrators set fire to the basement nursery of St. John’s Episcopal Church at about 10 p.m. The fire is extinguished by District firefighters. Church officials say the nursery is destroyed and the church is later boarded up. 

Monday, June 1, 3:20 p.m.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser establishes a citywide two-day 7 p.m. curfew starting that day.

6:10 p.m.

Attorney General William Barr is filmed with law enforcement officers at Lafayette Square after security forces had established a barrier limiting demonstrators to an area bordering H Street. The square is a federally owned public park.

USA TODAY reported that while Barr ordered protesters to be removed from the park itself before Trump’s visit, he was not involved in planning the church event. Officials had decided to expand the security perimeter around the park on Monday morning, after previous protests in the area. This was before the church visit was announced, officials said.

On Monday evening, Barr found the perimeter had not been expanded and ordered the park cleared, USA TODAY reported.

6:22 p.m.

CNN reported Park Police issued its first warning to protesters to clear the park at 6:22 p.m. The Park Police says June 2 that its officers issued a total of three warnings over a loudspeaker.

6:27 p.m.

Security officers, including Secret Service, military police, Park Police, District National Guard, and Arlington County, Virginia, police, advance on demonstrators in Lafayette Square. They use smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls, and horses to force demonstrators from the park to H Street.

Demonstrators set fire to the basement nursery of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2020.

Demonstrators set fire to the basement nursery of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2020.Alex Brandon, AP

Debate continues whether tear gas was used to remove protesters. Park Police said it did not use tear gas but did use pepper balls, a chemical irritant. The White House and Park Police said rubber bullets were not used.

6:33 p.m.

In a press release the next day, the U.S. Park Police says “violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids” at 6:33 p.m.

The Park Police also said its officers found “caches of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the street.”

U.S. Park Police news release issued June 2

As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls.

However, multiple journalists on the scene, including a team from USA TODAY, said protesters were peaceful before police moved in.

6:35 p.m.

In Lafayette Square, police on foot and on horseback move the last of the demonstrators out of the park and down H Street. The crowd begins moving west on H toward 17th Street.

Police fire pepper balls and flash-bang grenades. The street is clouded by smoke canisters. Some demonstrators run as police advance and many withdraw to Connecticut Avenue. Later, more than 300 are arrested, mostly for curfew violations. Some are charged with burglary and rioting.

6:40 p.m.

At the White House, Trump speaks in the Rose Garden about the George Floyd protests. He says he is a president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters but says violence must stop.

President Donald Trump

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.

Trump ends the speech by saying, “Thank you very much. And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place. Thank you very much.” He leaves for his walk to the church.

7:01 p.m.

Lafayette Square is clear. Trump leaves the White House on foot. Along with a security detail, some officials, and his daughter Ivanka, he crosses Pennsylvania Avenue, walks through the park and crosses H Street to stand in front of the Ashburton House, the church’s parish house. The walk takes about 4 minutes.

7:05 p.m.

Ivanka Trump takes a Bible from her purse and hands it to the president. Trump is photographed holding it. A reporter asks what his thoughts are.

President Donald Trump

We have a great country. That’s my thought. We have the best country in the world…we will make it even greater. And it won’t take long. It’s not going to take long. You see what’s going on, it’s coming back, it’s coming back strong. It’ll be greater than ever before.

Trump is later joined by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, chief of staff Mark Meadows and McEnany for additional photos.

7:18 p.m.

Trump arrives back at the White House.


In the days following the visit, Trump received criticism from many corners, which he characterized as partisan-based. 

  • “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” James Mattis, Marine Corps general and former defense secretary, wrote in the Atlantic.
  • “Tear-gassing peaceful protestors without provocation just so that the President could pose for photos outside a church dishonors every value that faith teaches us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a joint statement.
  • “There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property … but there is a fundamental – a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,″ said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
  • “In the District, we are now reckoning with an unhinged president responding to nonviolent demonstration with war-like tactics,” said Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia, in a statement.
  • The Australian government said it is investigating the videotaped assault of two Australian 7NEWS journalists by police while reporting on the protesters. The Park Police said it reassigned two officers to administrative duties pending an investigation.
  • The American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter, and other civil rights groups filed suit June 4 against Trump, Barr and other federal officials in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia over what they said was “the President’s shameless, unconstitutional, unprovoked, and frankly criminal attack on protesters.”
  • “Most religious leaders loved it. I heard Franklin Graham this morning thought it was great. I heard many other people think it was great. And it’s only the other side that didn’t like it. You know, the opposing – the opposition party, as the expression goes,” Trump told Brian Kilmeade on Fox News Radio.

SOURCES USA TODAY reporting;©HERE; AP photos; Google Street View; Associated Press; Reuters; White House pool reports; USA TODAY research

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