Most Republican Senators either defended, did not criticize, or declined to comment on law enforcement using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a crowd of non-violent protesters for a presidential photo op.
Shortly before Washington, D.C.’s 7 p.m. curfew on Monday evening, law enforcement used tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades to violently move a crowd of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered in Lafayette Park without prior warning.
The police and National Guard used those tactics to clear the area so that President Donald Trump could walk from the White House to the church, which had been damaged by fire the night before, and for nearly 20 minutes, pose for photos holding up a Bible in front of the building.
On Tuesday, Capitol Hill reporters stopped to ask Republican Senators for comment on the incident including NBC’s Kasie Hunt, who documented Senators’ responses to Trump’s photo-op in a lengthy Twitter thread, CNN’s Manu Raju, and Politico’s Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is up for a tough re-election fight this year, strongly condemned the incident.
“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once,” she said, according to Politico. “I thought that the president came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peaceful protest”
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who is up for re-election this year and overwhelmingly won his GOP primary earlier this month, offered also offered criticism of the event.
“There is no right to riot,” Sasse said in a statement. “But there is a fundamental—a Constitutional—right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina succinctly told Politico: “If your question is: should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op? The answer is no.”
But the vast majority of the GOP Senate caucus members interviewed by reporters did not condemn Trump’s actions.
Here’s what other GOP Senators told Capitol Hill reporters when asked about the matter:
- Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Rob Portman of Ohio both told NBC that they couldn’t stop to comment because they were “late for lunch.” Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told NBC: “I’m not going to critique other people’s performances” in response to the incident. When asked if Trump abused his power on Monday night, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas did not criticize Trump but told NBC that he believes the peaceful protesters who were forced out of the area abused their power. (It is unclear what power Cruz, a constitutional lawyer, was referring to). Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who is retiring this year, told NBC: “I don’t have any comment on that.” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Hunt of NBC he “didn’t really see it.” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida told NBC “we could all do better” when asked if Trump could have handled the situation better. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told NBC he “didn’t watch it closely enough to know.” Sen. Mike Lee of Utah told CNN’s Ali Zaslav: “I don’t have any reaction to it. I haven’t seen footage. Haven’t read accounts of it.” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana told NBC, “I didn’t follow, I’m sorry.” Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana told CNN, “I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” in response to the incident. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana told NBC he is “grateful for the president’s leadership.” Majority Whip Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said: “I hope he projects calm. I hope people act calmly,” according to Politico. “He has moments. But I mean, as you know, it lasts generally as long as the next tweet.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas defended the church photo op, telling CNN that clearing the area of protestors was “a necessary security measure.” Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate’s president pro tempore, also defended the photo-op, telling CNN: “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.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN that while he didn’t know what “the point” of Trump’s photo op was, he did not criticize it, saying, “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.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a defense hawk who strongly urged the military to get involved in quashing civil unrest and riots, released a statement saying: “The only way to end this insurrection is the overwhelming display of force,” according to CNN. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri told Politico: “We don’t want military uniformed officers on our streets…but we’re going to have to take steps in a lawful way bring this violence under control to stop it.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told NBC the events of Monday evening “was not the America that I know,” later saying: “I do not believe that that the tone coming from the president right now is helping. It’s not helping me as a leader.” Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma criticized the optics of the matter, telling Politico, “Doing what I thought was a really good speech — then that visual, that photo-op distracted from the message he had just given in the Rose Garden.” Hunt of NBC tweeted that Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama all walked past without answering NBC’s questions or offering comment.
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