Seeking to bare an iron fist, Donald Trump on Monday threatened to deploy the US military to quell civil unrest – even as teargas was fired against nearby peaceful protesters to grant him a photo opportunity.
In a highly choreographed move, the president gave brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden while, a short distance away, military police and law enforcement suddenly used teargas, rubber bullets and flash-bangs to chase away demonstrators.
TV footage showed people running, falling and scrambling for safety as officers removed them by force. One woman was carried away by fellow protesters because she was injured and unable to walk. Military vehicles rolled out on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The unprovoked action cleared the way for Trump to cross the street and visit St John’s church, which since 1816 has been the “Church of the Presidents”, and where a fire burned in the basement amid unrest on Sunday night. He held aloft a Bible and posed for cameras, and was then joined by the attorney general, William Barr, and other officials, including the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany.
“Donald Trump just tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op,” tweeted Kamala Harris, Democratic senator for California.
Trump’s short speech in golden evening light was intended to cast him as a military strongman determined to bring a restive nation to heel as it suffered spasms of unrest after the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“I am your president of law and order,” Trump said. “I am mobilising all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.”
He vowed to crack down on “professional anarchists, looters, criminals, antifa and others” whose actions had “gripped” America.
Trump, who had taken part in a teleconference with state governors earlier in the day, urging them to get tougher or “look like a bunch of jerks”, threatened to send in the military against the wishes of state and city officials.
“Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the national guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” he said. “Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming presence until the violence is quelled.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
The president added: “I am also taking swift and decisive action to protect our capital, Washington DC … As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and wanton destruction of property. We are putting everybody on warning.”
Trump would have to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty personnel to conduct law enforcement on US soil. It was used by President George H W Bush during the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
Trump spoke briefly of Floyd in the beginning of his comments, but said nothing about police brutality or racial injustice in America.
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, tweeted: “Peaceful protesters were gassed and shot with rubber bullets to clear away a space near a church to give Trump a photo-op waving a bible flanked by AG Barr and Sec Def Esper. Monstrous. Anticonstitutional.”
Susan Glasser, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, tweeted: “Who is the brilliant strategist who decided to attack peaceful protesters during a presidential event in the Rose Garden? Is this the split screen message to America and the world that Donald Trump wants to send?”