Donald Trump faced criticism from Republicans and a rare rebuke from a former top military officer after police on Monday used tear gas on peaceful protesters to clear the way for the US president to leave the White House and pose for a photo holding a Bible in front of a nearby church.
After threatening on Monday to deploy soldiers on US streets, Mr Trump walked from the White House across Lafayette Square to St John’s Episcopal Church and held up a copy of the Bible for the cameras in what was widely panned as a publicity stunt.
Mr Trump was joined by top officials, including General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who wore combat fatigues. Police had dispersed the crowd in Lafayette Square who were protesting the death of George Floyd.
“I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo-op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” said Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator.
Mike Mullen, a retired admiral who was chairman of the joint chiefs under George W Bush and Barack Obama, took the rare step of publicly saying he had been “sickened” to see security personnel “forcibly and violently clear a path . . . to accommodate the president’s visit outside St John’s Church”.
“Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succour to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicising the men and women of our armed forces,” Mr Mullen said.
Critics also targeted Mark Esper, the defence secretary, and particularly Gen Milley for letting himself be associated with a political event.
Michael Hayden, a retired general and former CIA director, said he was “appalled” to see Gen Milley in combat fatigues on Monday. A senior defence official said Gen Milley did not know what Mr Trump had planned.
Mr Trump was also criticised by Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, who told Politico that he disagreed with the move. “Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op? The answer is no,” the South Carolinian said.
Brendan Buck, who served as an aide to former Republican speaker of the House, said that even in an era of outrages, what Mr Trump had done was “immoral”.
While the vast majority of Republicans refrained from hitting Mr Trump, the criticisms resurrected some of the concern that emerged during the 2016 race when his campaign platform was viewed as having racist elements.
Donald Trump posed with a Bible in front of St John’s Episcopalian church on Monday after delivering remarks in the Rose Garden © AP
Mr Trump came under more fire on Tuesday over a visit to the Saint John Paul II shrine in Washington. Archbishop Wilton Gregory said it was “reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated”.
He added that Saint Pope John Paul II “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”.
Joe Biden, the former Democratic US vice-president who will face Mr Trump in November, slammed the president, saying he would not “traffic in fear and division” or “fan the flames of hate”.
“I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain,” he said.
Democrats in conservative districts that Mr Trump won in 2016 also castigated the president. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer representing a Virginia district, said the president was engaging in behaviour seen in authoritarian nations.
“The president . . . ordered tear gas and rubber bullets fired at peaceful protesters and members of the free press for the sake of a photo-op,” she said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi