Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the way that U.S. Park Police cleared protesters from the area near Lafayette Square Park in advance of Donald Trump’s visit to an historic church where he held up a Bible for a photo op.
“I think the U.S. Park Service, with having bricks thrown at them and frozen water bottles, had the right to act. They acted with the appropriate level of force to protect themselves, and to protect the average citizenry, and to protect the peaceful protesters who were among them as well,” she told reporters at a press briefing on Wednesday.
But reporters continued to press her on the chaotic images of the evening, as demonstrators fled the scene as authorities charged forward. One video showed an Australian TV cameraman being shoved by a police officer by a shield, and then punched him.
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“Are they protecting the peaceful protesters by firing various chemical agents, and walking through there with batons?” a reporter asked.
“Well, it wasn’t tear gas I would note,” McEnany said. “And what they used was a way to target those that were being violent. They used the minimal force that they could to ensure that that situation was safe, to make sure that St. John’s Church would not burn for a second night in a row.”
But a number of reporters who were at the scene described it as a peaceful protest and did not see projectiles being thrown at police. They also reported that evening that tear gas and rubber bullets were used, as scenes were shown of demonstrators dousing their eyes with water from the sting. Park Police said that pepper balls were used — what Centers for Disease Control says is a form of tear gas with similar effects.
Shortly after the area was cleared, Trump and other White House officials walked across Lafayette Square Park to St. John’s Church, which has been set afire the night before. The blaze was in the basement and contained to a nursery area, according to the church.
Trump posed with a Bible, a moment that McEnany said was “extremely important.”
“The president wanted to send a very powerful message that we will not be overcome by looting, by burning, by rioting,” she said. “This is not what defines America.”
She compared it to the symbolic moment of Winston Churchill inspecting bombing damage during World War II, George Bush throwing out the first pitch after 9/11, among other moments.
She said that Rev. Franklin Graham and others praised the moment.
But other clergy sharply criticized it, including Mariann Budde, the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes St. John’s, as well as Rev. Gini Gerbasi, the rector at St. John’s in Georgetown, who said she was “driven off” from the church’s patio area by police in riot gear using “tear gas and concussion grenades.” She told Religion News Service that she was there are part of a group sent by the diocese to offer water to demonstrators.
The Catholic archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, also spoke out against the incident, as well as a visit the president and First Lady made the next day to a shrine honoring Pope John Paul II. He said that the late pope “certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”