Top Senate Republicans on Tuesday brushed aside the use of force against hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered to demand an end to police brutality against Black Americans near the White House.
Some questioned whether it was a real protest in the first place.
“That wasn’t even a protest ― that was a provocation that was created deliberately for national television,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“Show me the pictures of that crowd and tell me those are real protesters and not professional agitators,” Rubio added.
On Monday evening, ahead of a citywide curfew, law enforcement officials in riot gear and on horseback fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse a largely peaceful crowd gathered to protest the death of George Floyd in Lafayette Park near the White House. Police also hit an Australian journalist and punched his camera, prompting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call for an investigation.
Shortly after protesters were forced from the area, President Donald Trump walked from the White House through the park to a historic church that was set on fire during earlier demonstrations over the weekend. Outside, he posed for photos with other members of his administration and held up a Bible.
Religious leaders at the church, an Episcopal parish in Washington, D.C., were aghast at the events, which were reportedly personally ordered by U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr. The nation’s top law enforcement officer was present on the ground and accompanied Trump to the church.
“I was coughing … we were trying to help people as the police — in full riot gear — drove people toward us,” one rector who had been passing out snacks and water to protesters at the church said afterward.
Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the move and called it dictatorial.
The extraordinary scene followed intense clashes between police and the public in Washington, D.C., and other states, some of which turned violent overnight amid widespread curfews and National Guard deployments. Trump in recent days has been urging a tougher response to the protests, urging governors to “dominate” demonstrations and threatening to send military troops to states that do not comply.
The display of force against a peaceful gathering at a public space near the White House, however, didn’t vex most Senate Republicans, who pointed to other demonstrations that had turned violent in the nation’s capital and across the country.
“I guess I was mostly horrified by the violence I’ve seen in our cities. I mean, did you see the woman hit by the two-by-four?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a vocal advocate of civil liberties, said when asked about the gassing of protesters at the White House on Monday.
“The problem is it’s very difficult to distinguish because you’ve had so many riots, so many violent outbursts, at what started out being peaceful demonstrations,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) added.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) denounced violent protesters and said it was important for the president to hold a photo-op on Monday evening to send a message to Americans that “we will not be cowed by terrorists.”
Other Senate Republicans simply declined to comment.
“Didn’t really see it,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said when asked about the protest on Tuesday.
After Democrats tried to pass a resolution condemning violence at protests as well as the gassing of protesters near the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected, blaming their “myopic” obsession with Trump.
Asked earlier in the day about Trump’s leadership in response to the nationwide protests, the Kentucky Republican said he was not “going to critique other people’s performances.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who offered the resolution on Tuesday, said McConnell’s objection showed how Republicans “did not want to condemn what the president did” in Lafayette Park on Monday.
But other Senate Republicans did speak out against the use of force against White House protesters, including Trump’s decision to hold a photo-op outside a church on Monday.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “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.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said that Trump’s decision to hold a photo-op minutes after Lafayette Park had been forcibly cleared by police had distracted from his speech he gave moments before in the Rose Garden about restoring “law and order.”
“The whole appearance at that time, right before curfew, I thought that was wrong timing,” Lankford said of Trump’s church visit.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had a more blunt response.
“I did not think that what we saw last night was the America I know,” she said when asked about the White House protest.
“It was painful to watch peaceful protestors be subjected to tear gas in order for the President to go across the street to a church I believe he’s attended only once,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added in a statement.