Clyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes 'mystical powers' to Trump

Clyburn: Cowed GOP ascribes 'mystical powers' to Trump
© Greg Nash

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) on Wednesday rebuked Republicans for their silence after President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Anderson Cooper: Trump's Bubba Wallace tweet was 'racist, just plain and simple' Beats by Dre announces deal with Bubba Wallace, defends him after Trump remarks Overnight Defense: DOD reportedly eyeing Confederate flag ban | House military spending bill blocks wall funding MORE directed the violent removal of peaceful protesters near the White House, accusing GOP lawmakers of cowing to the president at the expense of the country.

"It's time for the Republicans to understand the voting public feels that this country is more important than any one person," Clyburn said in a live interview with The Washington Post. "And for them to make the country subservient to this guy, is beyond any understanding that I'm capable of having."

Trump's Monday visit to a historic church near the White House — and the violent dispersal of demonstrators that preceded it — has been roundly condemned as an affront to the First Amendment right to peaceable assembly and public protest.

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The chorus of critics includes administration officials, who have resigned; foreign leaders, protesting attacks on their reporters; Democrats and civil rights leaders, demanding to know who was involved; and religious leaders, urging peace and restraint.

A handful of GOP lawmakers — including Sens. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseRussian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide Senators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents Beijing: US 'oppressing Chinese companies' after Huawei, ZTE action MORE (Neb.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins trails Democrat Sara Gideon by 4 in Maine Senate race: poll Senate outlook slides for GOP Trump sealed his own fate MORE (Maine) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottPublic unites, Congress gridlocks — there's a better way Trump sealed his own fate Senators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents MORE (S.C.) — have also criticized the crackdown.

Yet overwhelmingly Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to avoid the topic.

Huddled in the Capitol this week, Senate Republicans repeatedly dodged reporters' questions about the appropriateness of Trump's tactics. Many said they hadn't seen the news. Others ignored the questions. A few, like Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGianforte halts in-person campaigning after wife, running mate attend event with Guilfoyle Trump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down MORE (R-Texas), blamed the protesters for provoking the violence. 

"I'm not going to critique other people's performances," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump administration releases PPP loan data | Congress gears up for battle over expiring unemployment benefits | McConnell opens door to direct payments in next coronavirus bill Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge The Hill's Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Reid Wilson says political winners are governors who listened to scientists and public health experts; 12 states record new highs for seven-day case averages MORE (R-Ky.). 

With the House on recess, GOP leaders in the lower chamber have not been pressed as hard on the issue. The few that have are defending the president's visit to St. John's Episcopal Church, where Trump posed for pictures with a Bible held aloft.

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“They did pause and reflect and, I’m sure, pray,” Rep. Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseCheney clashes with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks GOP-Trump fractures on masks open up MORE (La.), the Republican whip, told Politico.

Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, initially expressed some reluctance to criticize his GOP colleagues for their silence, saying he's spoken with many Republicans privately who are uncomfortable with Trump's handling of the protests.

"I know they are torn between what they think their constituents may want them to do, and what they really feel in their heart they should do," Clyburn told the Post.

Yet Clyburn also predicted that voters, even those in deep red states like his own, aren't as supportive of the president as some Republicans say.

"They seem to feel that this guy has some mystical powers over the thought process in their districts," he said. "I don't know where that's coming from."

Clyburn, whose father was a minister, is also questioning Trump's motivations for visiting the church, accusing the president of using religion as "some kind of prop to further his political interests."

"The way they marched over to that church — not to kneel, not to go inside and pray, but to stand in front of, and hold a Bible up in the most awkward way that I've ever seen, and then call people over for a photo-op in front of the church — there was something real weird about all of that," he said.

The national debate over law enforcement tactics erupted last week after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, in the custody of Minneapolis police. A spectator's video showed Floyd pleading for his life — "I can't breathe" — while an officer pinned his neck to the ground with a knee. Floyd was pronounced dead roughly an hour later.

His death sparked protests around the country, some of them erupting into violence, looting and fierce confrontations with law enforcers, both local and national.

Against that backdrop, Trump on Monday had walked to St. John's, a short walk north of the White House, for a photo-op in front of the historic church, which was a target of arsonists the night before.

To clear the path for the visit, federal law enforcers advanced unannounced on thousands of peaceful protesters assembled around Lafayette Square Park, using tear gas, smoke canisters, shields and batons. Videos of the confrontation show officers attacking marchers and journalists, unprovoked.

Clyburn said the episode is part of a larger pattern: Trump and the Republicans, he charged, have long treated Washington, D.C., "as if it were a plantation."

"We're still denying the people in the District of Columbia their right for full citizenship with a vote, with representation. So I think that what we see here is a furtherance of that," he said.

Clyburn, a prominent veteran of the civil rights movement, said the current unrest is unlike anything he's seen since the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Both, he said, are "defining" moments in American history. And he's urging policymakers to channel the current outrage into sweeping reforms aimed at eliminating racial disparities in health care, eduction and criminal justice systems around the country.

"We must stand in solidarity with each other," he said.