Trump says removal of protesters 'handled very well'

President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE on Wednesday said he decided to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church after someone suggested it to him and defended law enforcement efforts to clear protesters from the area, saying the situation was “handled very well.”

"I went there because somebody suggested it was a good idea, and I thought it was a great idea, and it was a great idea,” Trump said during an interview with Newsmax host Sean SpicerSean Michael SpicerPro-Trump duo Diamond and Silk launch new program on Newsmax TV The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Supreme Court's unanimous decision on the Electoral College Juan Williams: Trump's base begins to crack MORE, the president's first press secretary at the White House. 

The interview aired Wednesday evening, about 48 hours after the president’s controversial photo opportunity outside the historic church just steps from the White House.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump seemed to attempt to distance himself from the decision to forcibly clear the protesters, telling Spicer that he wasn’t aware of whether there were people around the church. Trump went on to push back on the description in the media of protesters as largely peaceful by noting the church was set on fire during protests the evening prior.

“The military moved them back. I guess they just reported there were no, what do you call them, the rubber bullets. There was none of that used,” Trump said in the interview, which was taped Wednesday morning.

“They just moved them back. They didn’t know until just shortly before that I was going there. Somebody suggested. I said, 'Let’s go. Let’s walk.' And we walked from the White House, and I think everything was handled very well,” Trump said. “Religious leaders loved it.”

Trump has been criticized by religious leaders in Washington as well as by Democrats and some Republicans for staging the photo-op at St. John’s after protesters were forcibly cleared from the surrounding area of Lafayette Square. Widespread reports said that officers used chemical agents and rubber bullets in order to clear demonstrators.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a press briefing Wednesday that the appearance at the church sent a “very powerful message” that the country would not be “overcome by looting, by rioting, by burning.”

ADVERTISEMENT

McEnany likened Trump’s sojourn to the church to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s examination of World War II bombing damage in 1941 and other notable moments in American presidential history. McEnany also noted that Franklin Graham, a Christian evangelist and prominent supporter of the president, praised the appearance.

Demonstrators have gathered in Washington, D.C., and across the country to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis last week. Some of the protests have turned violent, with participants looting stores and vandalizing buildings.

Trump has focused on that aspect of the demonstrations, describing himself as an “ally” of peaceful protesters while pressuring cities and states to more forcibly crack down on the destructive demonstrations.

Top Trump administration officials have denied that authorities used tear gas or rubber bullets to clear protesters on Monday evening despite widespread reports to the contrary.

The U.S. Park Police said in a statement Tuesday that officials used smoke canisters and “pepper balls,” or projectiles that launch pepper spray, saying some of the protesters were trying to take officers’ weapons and throwing objects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies pepper spray as a riot-control agent, or tear gas.

McEnany also told reporters Wednesday that Attorney General William BarrBill BarrHillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations How would a Biden Justice Department be different? MORE made the decision to expand the perimeter around the White House on Monday morning, before discussions about Trump’s visit to the church took place. Law enforcement officers, including the D.C. National Guard, removed the protesters from Lafayette Square just after 6:30 p.m. on Monday, about half an hour before a citywide curfew went into effect.