When the history of the Trump presidency is written, the clash with protesters that preceded President Trump's walk across Lafayette Square may be remembered as one of his defining moments.
After a weekend of protests that led all the way to his own front yard and forced him to briefly retreat to a bunker beneath the White House, President Donald Trump arrived in the Oval Office on Monday agitated over the television images, annoyed that anyone would think he was hiding and eager for action.
He wanted to send the military into US cities, an idea that provoked a heated, voices-raised fight among his advisers. But by the end of the day, urged on by his daughter Ivanka Trump, he came up with a more personal way of demonstrating toughness — he would march across Lafayette Square to a church damaged by fire the night before.
The only problem: A plan developed earlier in the day to expand the security perimeter around the White House had not been carried out. When Attorney General William Barr strode out of the White House gates for a personal inspection early Monday evening, he discovered that protesters were still on the northern edge of the square. For the president to make it to St. John's Church, they would have to be cleared out. Barr gave the order to disperse them.
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What ensued was a burst of violence unlike any seen in the shadow of the White House in generations. As he prepared for his surprise march to the church, Trump first went before cameras in the Rose Garden to declare himself "your president of law and order" but also "an ally of all peaceful protesters," even as peaceful protesters just a block away and clergy members on the church patio were routed by smoke and flash grenades and some form of chemical spray deployed by shield-bearing riot officers and mounted police.
After a day in which he berated "weak" governors and lectured them to "dominate" the demonstrators, the president emerged from the White House, followed by a phalanx of aides and Secret Service agents as he made his way to the church, where he posed stern-faced, holding up a Bible that his daughter pulled out of her $1,540 Max Mara bag.
The resulting photographs of President Trump striding purposefully across the square satisfied his long-held desire to project strength, images that members of his campaign team quickly began recirculating and pinning to their Twitter home pages once he was safely back in the fortified White House.
The scene of mayhem — barely 300 metres from the symbol of American democracy — that preceded the walk evoked images more commonly associated with authoritarian countries, but that did not bother the president, who has long flirted with overseas strongmen and has expressed envy of their ability to dominate.
Throughout his time in office, Trump has generated concern over what critics see as his autocratic instincts, including his claims to untrammelled power to "do whatever I want," his attacks on quasi-autonomous institutions of government like the FBI or inspectors general and his efforts to discredit independent sources of information that anger him, like the news media he denounces as the "enemy of the people."
And when the history of the Trump presidency is written, the clash at Lafayette Square may be remembered as one of its defining moments.
Trump and his inner circle considered it a triumph that would resonate with many middle Americans turned off by scenes of urban riots and looting that have accompanied non violent protests of the police killing of a subdued black man in Minneapolis.
But critics, including some fellow Republicans, were aghast at the use of force against Americans who posed no visible threat at the time, all to facilitate what they deemed a ham-handed photo opportunity featuring all white faces. Some Democratic senators used words like "fascist" and "dictator" to describe the president's words and actions.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who was not consulted beforehand, said she was "outraged" over the use of one of her churches as a political backdrop to boast of squelching protests against racism. Even some White House officials privately expressed dismay that the president's entourage had not thought to include a single person of colour.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington sharply objected Tuesday and said the federal government had even privately broached the idea of taking over the city's police force, which she pledged to resist. "I don't think the military should be used in the streets of American cities against Americans," she said, "and I definitely don't think it should be done for a show."
Arlington County in suburban Virginia withdrew its police from those assembled to guard the White House and other federal sites after the Lafayette Square clash. Even beforehand, Democratic governors in Virginia, New York and Delaware refused to send National Guard troops requested by the Trump administration.
The spectacle staged by the White House also left military leaders struggling to explain themselves in response to criticism from retired officers that they had allowed themselves to be used as political props. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put out word through military officials that they did not know in advance about the dispersal of the protesters or about the president's planned photo op, insisting that they thought they were accompanying him to review the troops.
The police action cleared the way for the photo op, but it hardly quelled the anger in the streets. By Tuesday afternoon, demonstrators had returned to the edge of Lafayette Square — where new tall fences had been erected overnight — and shouted their discontent at the line of black-clad officers.
"Take off the riot gear; I don't see no riot here," they chanted.
Aides Tuesday defended Trump's walk to the church, given that a small fire had been set in its basement during demonstrations over the weekend. "The president very much felt when he saw those images on Sunday night — that crossed a terrible line, that goes way beyond peaceful protesting," Kellyanne Conway, his counsellor, told reporters.
But she distanced him from the decisions on how to disperse the crowd. "Clearly, the president doesn't know how law enforcement is handling his movement," she said.
This account of the clash is based on descriptions by reporters at the scene, interviews with dozens of protesters, White House aides, law enforcement officials, city leaders and others involved in the tense day as well as an analysis of video footage from The New York Times' visual investigations team.
Morning at the White House
Trump was stirred up Monday morning as he met with national security and law enforcement advisers to discuss what could be done about the street unrest. The advisers told him that he could not let the nation's capital be overrun, that the symbolism was too important and that he had to get it under control that night.
Among the ideas put on the table was invoking the Insurrection Act, a two-century-old law that would enable the president to send in active-duty military to quell disturbances over the objections of governors. The act has long been controversial. President George Bush invoked it in 1992 to respond to the Rodney King riots only at the request of California. But in the civil rights era, presidents sent in troops to enforce desegregation over the resistance of racist governors.
Its use is so charged that President George W. Bush hesitated to invoke it to respond to Hurricane Katrina for fear of looking like he was overriding local and state leaders.
Vice President Mike Pence favoured the idea, reasoning that it would allow quicker action than calling up National Guard units, and he was backed by Esper. But Barr and Milley warned against it. The attorney general cited concerns about states' rights, while Milley assured the president that he had enough force already in the nation's capital to secure the city and expressed worry about putting active-duty soldiers in such a role.
Several officials came away with different impressions of where Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, stood on the issue, but the discussion grew increasingly heated as voices were raised and tensions escalated.
Trump and Pence then conducted a conference call with the nation's governors in which the president berated them for being "weak" and "fools," advising them to "dominate" the demonstrators. Esper talked about controlling "the battlespace."
The president rhapsodised about the crackdown in Minneapolis once the National Guard moved in. "It's a beautiful thing to watch," he said. "It just can't be any better. There's no experiment needed. You don't have to do tests."
In Washington, Barr was in charge of the federal response and an alphabet's soup of agencies had contributed officers, agents and troops to defending the White House and other federal installations, including the Secret Service; the U.S. Park Police; National Guard; Capitol Police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Marshal's Service; the Bureau of Prisons; Customs and Border Protection; and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Barr was concerned about demonstrations near the White House over the weekend that had resulted in a small basement fire at St. John's and graffiti on the Treasury Department headquarters, so he resolved to push the security perimeter farther from the mansion.
Reinforcements were summoned. Just before noon, an alert went out to every Washington-area agent with Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, telling them to prepare to assist with any demonstration, according to an email labelled with a "high" severity. The FBI 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. 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 Bowser's office and discovered that the mayor had not even been notified of the request. At that point, Northam turned the White House down. Similarly, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York called off buses of National Guard troops that were to head to Washington.
By midafternoon Monday, protesters had gathered again on H Street at the north side of Lafayette Square, this time peacefully. Rev. Gini Gerbasi, rector of St. John's Church in Georgetown and a former assistant rector at St. John's, arrived around 4pm 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 police.
While there were occasionally some aggressive encounters with police, Gerbasi said, it was largely calm. "There were a few tense moments," she said. "But it was peaceful."
Inside the White House nearby, Trump was coming up with his plan to walk to the church. Several administration officials said it was his own idea; two officials said that Meadows credited Ivanka Trump during a senior staff meeting Tuesday. It was crafted during an Oval Office meeting that included Ivanka Trump; Meadows; Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser; and Hope Hicks, another top adviser.
At some point, Anthony Ornato, a Secret Service veteran who serves as deputy chief of staff for operations, was brought in to coordinate the logistics of the visit. Hicks came up with the visuals for how it would look. But officials privately conceded that little thought was given to what President Trump would do once he actually got to the church. There was some discussion of going inside, but it was boarded up.
The president and his team decided he would first make a statement in the Rose Garden in which he would express sympathy for the family of George Floyd, the black man who died in Minneapolis when a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, but then he would take a strong stance in favor of reclaiming the streets. He would threaten to invoke the Insurrection Act if governors and mayors did not do a better job of security. Reporters were told a statement would be coming, but the march to the church was kept a secret.
Barr made a trip out of the White House and into Lafayette Square only to find that the plan to expand the security perimeter had not been carried out. He ordered the law enforcement officers on the ground to complete the expansion, which would mean dispersing protesters, but there was not enough time to do so before the president's planned statement.
Before the clash
At 5:07pm, National Guard trucks loaded with troops headed north on West Executive Avenue, a lane on the White House compound between the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and drove past the visitors entrance, out the gates and turned right onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
Shortly after, two members of the Secret Service counterassault team appeared on the roof of the West Wing with guns and binoculars, peering north toward Lafayette Square. While snipers are stationed on the main roof of the White House from time to time, they are not usually deployed on top of the West Wing, and the sight was jarring for regulars at the building.
The White House press corps was summoned to the Rose Garden at 6:03pm. Outside the gates and across Lafayette Square, some of the officers in riot gear kneeled down, and some protesters initially thought they were expressing solidarity as police have done in other cities, but in fact they were putting on their gas masks.
At 6:17pm, 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 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, Gerbasi said. "We started seeing and smelling tear gas, and people were running at us." By 6:30pm, 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."
Julia Dominick, a seminarian with the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and a former emergency room nurse, was tending to a hurt protester when a police line advanced.
"There was not a warning," she said. "I've never been in a war. I've never been shot at. I've never been afraid in that way. Those sounds and the gas, it will be with me." (No police agency acknowledged using tear gas, but reporters and protesters on the scene said there was clearly a chemical irritant of some kind.)
At 6:43pm, Trump made his statement in the Rose Garden, finishing seven minutes later, and then headed back through the White House to emerge on the north side and walk out the gates and into the park. Barr, Esper, Milley, Meadows, Ivanka Trump, Kushner and others followed him, but Pence and his staff hung back as the building emptied and watched on television instead.
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.
When he reached St. John's, President Trump made no pretense of any intent other than posing for photographs — he held up the Bible carried by his daughter, then gathered a few top advisers next to him in a line. He made no remarks and then, having accomplished his purpose, headed back to the White House, passing in front of a wall with new graffiti saying, "F*** Trump."
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. Barr and Milley at different points roamed the streets.
By Tuesday morning, Trump boasted of success. "D.C. had no problems last night," he wrote on Twitter. "Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!)."
By Tuesday afternoon, the crowds were back and even bigger.
Written by: Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman, Katie Rogers, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Katie Benner, Haley Willis, Christiaan Triebert and David Botti
Photographs by: Erin Schaff and Doug Mills
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES