President Donald Trump finally addressed ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality — but not how you might think. On Monday, June 1, Trump made his way, reportedly from a secure bunker, to a photo op at St. John's Church, which has essentially served as "the Church of the Presidents" for 200 years. Earlier Monday evening, President Donald Trump spoke about "peaceful protests" — as police shot gas and pepper balls at protesters to get them to clear his path to the photo op, prompting some critics to condemn his actions as fascist propaganda. The White House did not immediately respond to Elite Daily's request for comment on the incident and the White House's role.
On June 1, Trump spoke for the first time about the unrest and escalating protests in response to the death of black Americans. In Washington, D.C. and across the country, protesters have been taking to the streets following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Four officers have since been fired, and one, Derek Chauvin, has since been charged with third degree murder and manslaughter. Elite Daily attempted to reach a lawyer for Chauvin for comment, but did not hear back. The protests have also come in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, among others.
Trump addressed reporters at the White House Rose Garden. "All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd," Trump said at the beginning of his June 1 statement. "My administration is fully committed that, for George and his family, justice will be served. He will not have died in vain." Trump then described himself as "your president of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters." And yet, just minutes later, law enforcement officials reportedly tear-gassed peaceful protesters in the park in order for Secret Service to allow for Trump to make his way to the church to pose with a Bible that — according to his own words — was not even his.
As protests took place in D.C., Trump walked through Lafayette Park — which sits between the White House and St. John's Church — in order to get to his photo op. So to clear the route, police officers and National Guard units reportedly fired off tear gas and flash grenades at protesters, forcing them to disperse. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on the incident and the White House's role in ordering the protesters dispersed, but did not immediately hear back. The U.S. Park Police later denied using tear gas, saying in a statement that authorities had used "smoke canisters and pepper balls." When Trump got to the church, he held up a Bible. "We have the greatest country in the world," he said. "Keep it nice and safe."
According to CNN's Jim Acosta, the gas forced St. John's Rev. Gina Gerbasi, who was among the protesters, to run from the area. "[Trump] turned it into a literal battleground," Gerbasi reportedly told Acosta.
During his Monday evening remarks, Trump also threatened to deploy the military in response to escalating protests across the country. This, coupled with his retreat to a secure White House bunker on Friday evening and his photo op in front of the church, prompted criticism that his behavior was reminiscent of fascist propaganda. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of Italian and history at New York University as well as an expert on authoritarianism and propaganda, tells Elite Daily via email that this was a fair criticism.
"This had all the elements of authoritarianism: an insecure ruler determined to stay in power no matter the cost who surrounds himself with the armed forces, attacks protestors and the press, uses religion as a prop, and criminalizes the democratic right to protest," Ben-Ghiat says. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on the appearance of fascism in Trump's actions, but did not immediately hear back.
Prior to his remarks on Monday evening, Trump has primarily aired his thoughts on Twitter. His tweets — ranging from apparent threats against looters to condemnations of anti-fascist group Antifa as a supposed "terrorist organization," which is inaccurate — have prompted widespread backlash as activists across the country demand justice for Floyd and other black people killed by police.