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Behind the scenes

Inside the push to tear-gas protesters ahead of a Trump photo op

The president’s aides were torn about the plan to clear out protestors so he could speak in front of a D.C. church.
The president’s aides were torn about the plan to clear out protestors so he could speak in front of a D.C. church. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Trump began considering a visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday morning, after spending the night devouring cable news coverage of protests across the country, including in front of the White House.

The historic church had been damaged by fire, and Trump was eager to show that the nation’s capital — and especially his own downtown swath of it — was under control.

There was just one problem: the throngs of protesters, who on Monday had again assembled peacefully in Lafayette Square across from the White House to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last week.

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And so — shortly before the president addressed the nation from the Rose Garden at 6:43 p.m. Monday and roughly a half-hour before the District of Columbia’s 7 p.m. curfew went into effect — authorities fired flash-bang shells, gas, and rubber bullets into the crowd, clearing a path for Trump to visit the church immediately after his remarks.

The split screen as Trump began speaking was dark and foreboding — an angry leader proclaiming himself ‘‘an ally of all peaceful protesters’’ alongside smoke-filled mayhem and pandemonium as protesters raced for safety.

The evening’s events were the product of a president who favors brute strength and fears looking weak yet finds himself reeling from a deadly pandemic that has left more than 100,000 Americans dead and racial unrest that has led to protests and riots across the nation.

He has also been consumed by his faltering poll numbers against former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

When Trump had returned safely to the White House less than an hour later, the verdict seemed clear: The president had staged an elaborate photo op, using a Bible awkwardly held aloft as a prop and a historic church that has long welcomed presidents and their families as a backdrop. In the process, protesters had been tear gassed and attacked, and Trump had taken a raging conflagration and doused it with accelerant.

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‘‘We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act,’’ said Brendan Buck, a former congressional aide who is now a Republican operative. ‘‘The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.’’

Trump’s decision to speak to the nation from the Rose Garden and to visit the church came together earlier in the day, said a senior White House official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Trump was upset about news coverage of him briefly retreating to the White House bunker Friday evening amid protests, and he repeatedly wondered why anyone would have disclosed those details to the news media, two officials said.

He was also frustrated by weekend coverage of his call to the Floyd family, which he believed was positive — he called it ‘‘a very good call,’’ an official said — but was portrayed negatively.

And Trump was angry about cable news footage Sunday evening, showing protests and riots near the presidential residence, a White House official said. He spent much of Monday discussing with his team how to demonstrate that the streets in Washington were under control and that there would not be riotous scenes in the coming days, the official said.

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Aides were torn on the proposed spectacle. One official argued it was necessary, allowing Trump to demonstrate he was not hunkered down and was out of the White House, as well as showing that he stands with evangelical voters. But two others worried it could backfire.

‘‘It was just to win the news cycle,’’ one Trump adviser said. ‘‘I’m not sure that things are any better for us tomorrow.’’

Jason Miller, a former senior adviser on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, defended the president’s decision. He said Trump was elected, in part, on law-and-order themes, which he needs to continue to hammer, while simultaneously talking to black supporters about some of his initiatives, such as criminal justice reform.

‘‘You’re going to have to go and knock some of the bad guys around a little bit,’’ Miller said. ‘‘Once they get tear gassed or pepper sprayed, they don’t want it to happen again.’’

He added that Trump had been reminded by allies that he was elected as a ‘‘get-things-done president.’’

‘‘He’s not the hand-holder or consoler in chief,’’ Miller said. ‘‘He was elected to take bold dramatic action, and that’s what he did.’’

The action began less than an hour before the curfew, and in the moments before Trump was set to speak. Just after 6 p.m., hundreds of protesters were gathered, facing Lafayette Square. Though members of the National Guard — wielding shields that said ‘‘Military Police’’ — were lined up behind barricades, along with Secret Service and other law enforcement officers, the protesters remained peaceful. Several played music, and one painted on an easel.

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Shortly thereafter, Attorney General William Barr visited the scene, and, at about 6:30 p.m., the National Guard moved just yards from the protesters, prompting some screams. Some protesters threw water bottles, but many simply stood with their arms raised.

Then the chaos began.

Members of the National Guard knelt briefly to put on gas masks, before charging eastward, pushing protesters down. The authorities shoved protesters with their shields, fired rubber bullets directly at them, released tear gas, and set off flash-bang shells in the middle of the crowd.

Protesters ran, many still with their hands up, shouting, ‘‘Don’t shoot.’’

Others were vomiting, coughing, and crying.