As protests over George Floyd’s death have devolved into looting, vandalism, and arson in cities across America, rioters set fire to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. — just across from the White House. In a moment of solidarity with those whose properties and livelihoods have been destroyed by the riots, President Donald Trump walked over to St. John’s and held up a Bible. On Tuesday, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden condemned Trump’s “photo op,” insisting that it was a callous grab for power at the expense of “peaceful protesters.” Biden failed to mention the arson at the church — the whole reason behind Trump’s action.
Biden accused police of using tear gas to disperse the crowd for the photo op.
“When peaceful protesters, dispersed in order for a president, a president, from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House, using tear gas and flash grenades in order to stage a photo op, a photo op, of one of the most historic churches in the country, or at least in Washington, D.C., we can be forgiven for believing the president’s more interested in power than in principle. More interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care,” Biden declared.
He insisted that the president’s job is to “care” about everyone, “not just our donors but all of us.”
“The president held up the Bible at St. John’s Church yesterday. I just wish he opened it once in a while, instead of brandishing it. If he opened it, he could have learned something. We’re all called to love one another as we love ourselves. It’s really hard work, but it’s the work of America,” Biden concluded.
NEW: Joe Biden: "The president held up the Bible at St. John's Church yesterday. I just wish he opened it once in a while." https://t.co/uysxAv5RC2 pic.twitter.com/lLHK6JYVcg
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) June 2, 2020
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While Biden’s quip about Trump reading the Bible was clever, it was uncalled for. Biden used the quip to suggest that Trump’s “photo op” was callous and undignified — not fitting for a president.
Was there tear gas?
Even in leveling this charge, the former vice president may have spread fake news. Neal Augenstein, a reporter with WTOP, shared the U.S. Park Police’s statement about the clearing of Lafayette Square around 6:40 p.m. on Monday — at least 20 minutes before Washington, D.C.’s 7 p.m. curfew.
“A source says tear gas was never used — instead smoke cannisters were deployed, which don’t have an uncomfortable irritant in them. And, the source says Park Police didn’t know President Trump would be walking across the park several minutes later. Park Police say the reason the crowd was disbursed with smoke cannisters is that at that moment, officers were being pelted with water bottles. Another factor was that protesters had climbed on top of the structure at the north end of Lafayette Square that had been burned the day before,” Augenstein tweeted.
…the reason the crowd was disbursed with smoke cannisters is that at that moment, officers were being pelted with water bottles. Another factor was that protesters had climbed on top of the structure at the north end of Lafayette Square that had been burned the day before.
— Neal Augenstein (@AugensteinWTOP) June 2, 2020
While Augenstein has been unable to rule out the use of tear gas, none of the police agencies involved has admitted to using tear gas. It seems likely reporters mistook the smoke grenades for tear gas. From the Park Police’s statement, it appears the square was not just cleared to make way for the president, but in part because protesters had thrown water bottles at the police.
Biden was far from alone in condemning the “photo op.”
Biden’s larger insinuation — that Trump’s “photo op” was callous — only makes sense outside of the context for the president’s walk to St. John’s.
Again, President Donald Trump walked to St. John’s to express solidarity with the victims in the riots. St. John’s Church had been set on fire amid the riots on Sunday night. Yet neither Biden nor any of the other liberal voices condemning Trump’s “photo op” managed to note that the church had been the target of arson just days before.
“Let me be clear, the president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus,” Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, said on CNN Monday night. “We align ourselves with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and countless others. And I just can’t believe what my eyes have seen.”
Budde and others acted as though Trump’s walk to St. John’s was more disturbing than the images of rioting, looting, and burning across America.
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Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Primate of the Episcopal church, accused the president of using the church and Bible for “partisan political purposes. For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all’.”
“Americans, including clergy, peaceful protesters and members of the media, were tear gassed and met with horses and rubber bullets so that Donald Trump, channeling Kim Jong Un, could film this commercial, holding a Bible he took without permission from a church he didn’t enter,” MSNBC host Joy Reid tweeted.
Americans, including clergy, peaceful protesters and members of the media, were tear gassed and met with horses and rubber bullets so that Donald Trump, channeling Kim Jong Un, could film this commercial, holding a Bible he took without permission from a church he didn’t enter. https://t.co/cXJJdt2uOq
— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) June 2, 2020
The context of the “photo op”
This happened amid riots that have caused millions of dollars in damage — Sacramento’s mayor estimated $10 million, damage in Atlanta has been estimated at between $10 and $15 million. Rioters damaged an estimated 50 businesses and properties in Pittsburgh, with similar numbers in Seattle (50 businesses), Chicago (45 properties), and Madison, Wisc. (75 businesses).
This damage carries a deeply personal toll as well as an economic one. A black business owner in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died and where the riots began, broke into tears explaining that the riots destroyed his life savings and his economic opportunity. A black woman in Philadelphia, Pa., urged police to stop the riots, saying, “We need some security on this land NOW! Not tomorrow, not later.”
Yet Joe Biden, Joy Reid, and the primate of the Episcopal Church are angrier at President Donald Trump’s march of solidarity to visit a burned church than they are at the looters and rioters who are destroying livelihoods across America — and dishonoring the memory of George Floyd.
Michael Curry’s statement gave a brief glimpse into the depths of this insanity. He claimed Trump used the church for “partisan political purposes.” Do Curry, Reid, Budde, and Biden really not know that President Donald Trump has condemned the killing of George Floyd? Did they not see that Trump launched a Department of Justice and FBI investigation into this horrific incident?
….I have asked for this investigation to be expedited and greatly appreciate all of the work done by local law enforcement. My heart goes out to George’s family and friends. Justice will be served!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2020
Trump’s only “partisan” position has been the championing of law and order against the riots.
During a speech on Sunday, Trump noted that the mobs “are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses, and burning down buildings. The mobs are devastating the life’s work of good people and destroying their dreams. … We cannot and must not allow a small group of criminals and vandals to wreck our cities and lay waste to our communities. We must defend the rights of every citizen to live without violence, prejudice, or fear.”
It seems people like Joe Biden think Trump used the church as a prop to support police brutality in opposition to the protesters who are rightly furious about the death of George Floyd. Yet that’s not it, at all. Trump’s march to St. John’s was a statement of solidarity with victims who have lost so much in these lawless riots. The president wants justice for George Floyd, too — he just doesn’t want America’s cities destroyed in the process.
You would think a former vice president running for president would be able to understand the distinction, but apparently not.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.