Donald Trump threatened to send American soldiers on to the streets to quell the worst unrest since the 1960s unless cities and states take stronger action against protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
Calling himself the “law and order” president, Mr Trump spoke on Monday night as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who were demonstrating peacefully in Lafayette Square, a park in front of the White House.
Mr Trump then strode across the cleared area to St John’s Episcopal church, where he posed for pictures holding a Bible, which he did not open. The move was panned by critics of the president as a publicity stunt.
Reverend Mariann Budde, the bishop who oversees the church, told the Washington Post that she was “outraged” police had used tear gas to clear the path to allow Mr Trump to use the historic building “as a prop”.
Kamala Harris, the California senator and possible running mate for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, tweeted that Mr Trump had “tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op”.
Meanwhile, Muriel Bowser, Washington’s mayor, slammed the federal police for targeting peaceful protesters ahead of the 7pm curfew she had set. “25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful!”
Mr Trump’s controversial actions came ahead of another night of clashes and looting in cities across the country, with some protesters defying curfews.
Before making his way to the church accompanied by several senior officials, including William Barr, the attorney-general, Mr Trump said he was “ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country”.
In his White House speech, Mr Trump told US governors to “dominate” the streets of their states with National Guard units and warned that he would send troops to take over if they did not comply.
“These are not acts of peaceful protests. These are acts of domestic terror,” said Mr Trump.
The president added that the nation had been “gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals . . . and Antifa”, referring to the leftist anti-fascist movement.
Mr Trump said he would deploy the US military to “quickly solve the problem” if cities and states did not respond adequately.
Any move to put troops on the streets would require him to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act which allows the president to deploy the military on US soil. It was last invoked in 1992 amid the riots after the acquittal of police who had beaten Rodney King, an African-American man, in Los Angeles.
The threat to deploy troops without the invitation of governors sparked cries that Mr Trump was acting like an authoritarian leader, suggesting he would face legal challenges to any such move.
“The president . . . is not a dictator,” said Letitia James, New York state’s attorney-general. “The president does not have the right to unilaterally deploy US military across American states . . . We will not hesitate to go to court to protect our constitutional rights during this time.”
The president referred to demonstrators as an ‘angry mob’ and police fired tear gas at what had been peaceful protests outside the White House © REUTERS
Mr Trump had earlier told governors on a call that they were “weak” and needed to clamp down on protesters.
The president said Americans were “revolted by the brutal death” of Floyd, but stressed that his administration “cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob”.
But Mr Trump has fanned the flames of anger as people responded to the latest death of an African-American at the hands of white police officers.
Aides had debated if he should address the nation. Some argued he needed to try to bring the country together, while others said he would achieve little and would look weak if the protests continued.
Mr Trump on Monday ordered the army to deploy a unit in the capital, a decision that did not require him to invoke the 1807 act. The Pentagon also positioned National Guard military police who were situated across the street from the White House before the president’s speech.
US secret service uniformed division officers were among the law enforcement officials deployed outside the White House © REUTERS
While the vast majority of the protests that have spread across the US have been peaceful, there have been incidents of violence and looting, including in Washington, which saw widespread unrest on Sunday.
Some police across the US have taken action to show solidarity with the protesters. But other officers have poured fuel on the fire by using aggressive tactics that have sparked more accusations of brutality.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi