Top Republican senators defend Trump’s church photo-op after peaceful protesters cleared out

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The stunning move prompted a visceral reaction among Democrats, who likened Trump’s actions to a dictator as they prepared legislation to condemn the use of force — including tear gas and rubber bullets — against Americans exercising their constitutional rights to protest.

But Republicans — for the most part — aligned squarely with the President, saying it was his right to take such action given at times the violent protests that have occurred in the United States and the need for him to demonstrate that the country would not stand for the actions of looters and “anarchists.”

It was the latest indication of the deeply polarized environment on Capitol Hill amid one of the most tumultuous years in American history, with the two parties at sharp odds over the President’s stewardship of the multiple crises facing the country and violent protests in cities following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership team, said the protesters had to be cleared out “for security purposes” since Trump was “walking over to the church” and they were asked to clear “but refused to do so.”

“So obviously, it was a necessary security measure,” Cornyn told CNN. Cornyn rejected the notion that they were acting peacefully since they can’t “ignore what law enforcement officers are telling them to do for the security of the president or anybody else.”

Asked if the President should have gone to the church for a photo-op that led to tear gas and other measures to be used on the protesters, Cornyn criticized the media and others who are “never going to find any good or any positive development in anything. So you can characterize it the way you want, but obviously the President is free to go where he wants and to hold up a Bible if he wants,” calling it a “civil message.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior Republican in the Senate, told CNN that peaceful protesters have the right to demonstrate but he didn’t know the extent to which the “police might expect violence from some of the people — maybe 5% of the people — and that could be a potential problem, the answer would be, it’s OK” to clear them out with force.

Grassley defended Trump’s move to go to St. John’s Church, citing the fire that protesters set to the church’s premises the night before.

“We expect leadership from our President and particularly in times like this,” Grassley said Tuesday. “And I think that when there was destruction to a church or any other historical thing that America would put great confidence in that should not be destroyed, I think a president ought to bring attention to that terrorist activity, and go there and do … what he did last night.”

Trump, an infrequent churchgoer, focuses on Christian base amid protests and pandemic

Asked about the fact that the protesters were acting peacefully, Grassley said: “It’s all assumed to be peaceful until someone that’s got a terrorist activity or a rioting activity, you don’t know that until it happens. So I don’t know if they could have known that.”

The exterior of the church had been defaced during protests outside the White House on Sunday, and there had been a small fire in the parish house basement but church leaders said in a statement that the structure was largely “untouched.” Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington said Monday she was outraged by the President’s visit to her church, which she said came without advance notice to share “a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked if he had any issues with the use of tear gas against the protesters on Monday evening. “No, given what we’ve seen the last few nights in front of the White House — incredibly dangerous and violent situations.”

Rubio, a Florida Republican, also disputed the assertion that the protesters were cleared out for the Trump photo-op in front of the church, noting that the 7 p.m. ET curfew was drawing near.

Rubio said the protesters were “professional agitators.”

“They know the police have to move forward on them, that will trigger the use of tear gas and it plays right into the imagery that they want. … That wasn’t even a protest. It was a provocation that was created deliberately for national television.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, called it a “strong move” for Trump to go to the church and “walk out in public.” She added the use of tear gas “strikes me as not right” but added “those are decisions are made by the security people.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t answer a question directly when asked if he was comfortable with the scene that played out at the White House Monday and the presidential photo-op.

“I’m relieved that apparently there were few-to-no injuries last night, apparently little-to-no looting, hopefully tonight will be more peaceful even than that,” McConnell said in response to a question about Monday’s events near the White House.

The GOP reaction diverges sharply from Democrats, with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer saying it’s an “action worthy and appropriate to censure and criticize.” Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were preparing a resolution to condemn the President’s actions.

On Monday evening, peaceful protesters just outside the White House gates were dispersed with tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets ahead of Trump’s remarks and trip to the church.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close ally of Trump’s, seemed to question the need for Trump to have a photo-op in front of the church — and said the events in New York and other cities was “pretty disturbing” and “we need to get a grip on order” to deal with the “underlying issue” that resulted in the death of Floyd.

“Well, I don’t know what the point was,” Graham said of the photo-op. “I guess he’s trying to say we’re reclaiming the church. But the point is that we need to focus on what happened to Mr. Floyd, it’s a systematic problem, but you can’t do that until you get order.”

Indeed, some Republicans expressed unease with Trump’s actions.

Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine who faces voters in the fall, offered the toughest criticism of any Republican so far.

“To me at a time like this, the President ought to be trying to calm the nation, pledge to right historic wrongs and be a steady influence. I don’t think that he was last night,” Collins said Tuesday. “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.”

Collins added: “I thought the President came across as unsympathetic and insensitive to the rights of people to peacefully protest.”

Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, said “of course not” when asked if he was comfortable with the images he saw of protestors being disbursed with force ahead of the President.

Lankford said the President “distracted from the message” of a “really good speech” by going to St. John’s around curfew.

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said he hadn’t seen the news about the events from Monday night and didn’t know all the details. But he added that “people who are peacefully protesting” ought to “have that right to do so without interference.”

And Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, said in a statement: “I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”

Others sidestepped the question, including GOP senators running for reelection.

Asked about the peaceful nature of the protests, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said: “The problem is it is very difficult to distinguish because you have had so many riots and so many violent outbursts out of what started out as peaceful demonstrations.”

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican up for reelection in Colorado, didn’t directly answer the question.

“Peaceful protests are going to have to continue,” he said when asked if he was comfortable with what happened near the White House.

Similarly, GOP leaders were reticent to criticize Trump.

“You know obviously clearing a path for him anytime the President moves, that’s something you do,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune said when asked if he had any objections to the confrontation with protestors. “But you know again a lot of this is going to be in the eye of the beholder.”

Thune added of Trump’s handling of the response to the protests in cities across the country: “I hope he projects calm.” Asked if Trump was doing that, Thune added: “I mean he has his moments. But you know it lasts generally as long as the next tweet.”

Others claimed they knew little about the matter.

“I didn’t really see it,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said.

Added Sen. Mike Lee of Utah: “I don’t have any reaction to it. I haven’t seen footage, haven’t read accounts of it.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Lauren Fox, Ali Zaslav, Cat Gloria and Dominic Torres contributed to this report.

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