GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters

GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters
© Greg Nash

Several Republican senators sidestepped weighing in on the removal of largely peaceful protesters from near the White House on Monday night.

Protesters were removed from Lafayette Square shortly before President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE walked across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church, part of which had been set on fire the night before. 

The tactics have sparked fierce backlash from Democrats, who have questioned if the move was illegal, but several GOP senators, asked about it on Tuesday, said they had not seen or hadn’t been following the footage, which was played on TV and circulated widely on social media. 

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“I didn’t watch it closely enough to know,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — PennEast drops pipeline plans despite Supreme Court victory Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase MORE (R-Utah) told reporters. 

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonBiden sidesteps GOP on judicial vacancies, for now The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Liberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda MORE (R-Wis.) said as he entered a closed-door caucus lunch that he “didn’t really see it.”

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.), asked about it as he left the lunch, told reporters that he had been “reading.”

And Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyThis week: Democrats hit make-or-break moment for Biden GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff House passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit MORE (R-La.) added as he left that he didn’t “follow” Monday night’s protest in front of the White House.

Others, including Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziCheney on same-sex marriage opposition: 'I was wrong' What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling Senate votes to end debate on T infrastructure bill MORE (R-Wyo.), said they were running late for a weekly Senate Republican lunch, while some didn't respond to questions at all as they entered the caucus meeting.

The treatment of protesters near the White House did not come up during the party’s closed-door lunch, according Sens. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee DHS chief 'horrified' by images at border MORE (R-Mo.) and Mike BraunMichael BraunBiden sidesteps GOP on judicial vacancies, for now Bipartisan push for vocational training focuses on funding, curricula The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles MORE (R-Ind.). 

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And asked if he was “comfortable” with the “scene” near the White House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push On The Money — GOP blocks spending bill to kick off chaotic week in congress Overnight Health Care — Presented by Alrtia — Booster shots get bipartisan rollout MORE (R-Ky.) didn’t directly address if he supported the decision to remove protesters. 

"I've already told you what I think about last night. I'm relieved that apparently there were few to no injuries last night, apparently little or no looting," McConnell said. 

McConnell also sidestepped a question on if he thought Trump was providing the right kind of leadership in response to the protests, telling reporters: "I'm not going to critique other people's performances. I can speak for myself, and I just have.” 

Law enforcement removed demonstrators from Lafayette Square shortly before Trump left the White House and crossed the street with other administration officials to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he briefly stood outside while giving remarks and holding a Bible.

Multiple media outlets at the protest reported that law enforcement officials used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove protesters. The head of the U.S. Park Police insisted on Tuesday that it used pepper balls and smoke canisters, but not tear gas.

Law enforcement officials separately told The Washington Post that Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham Woodward: Milley was 'setting in motion sensible precautions' with calls to China Barr-Durham investigation again fails to produce a main event MORE personally ordered for the perimeter near the White House to be extended, pushing protesters away from Lafayette Square.

Some GOP senators broke with the White House on Tuesday for removing the protesters, marking a rare area of criticism of Trump. 

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDo progressives prefer Trump to compromise? Looking to the past to secure America's clean energy future Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in November, said that it was “painful to watch.” And Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiDo progressives prefer Trump to compromise? This week: Democrats hit make-or-break moment for Biden GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (R-Alaska) — who like Collins is a moderate GOP senator— told reporters it was “not the America I know.” 

“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,” Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottBooker: End of police reform negotiations a 'frustrating experience' Sunday shows - All eyes on spending votes Tim Scott says police reform talks collapsed with Dems over funding MORE (R-S.C.), the only black Republican senator, told Politico

Sen. Ben SasseBen SassePresident of newly recognized union for adult performers boosts membership Romney blasts Biden over those left in Afghanistan: 'Bring them home' Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal MORE (R-Neb.) also indicated in a statement that he thought Trump used the Bible “as a political prop,” while also saying there is “no right to riot, no right to destroy others' property, and no right to throw rocks at police.”

"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," Sasse, who won his Senate primary last month, said in a statement. 

But those remarks were a minority compared to many of their Republican colleagues, who either didn’t directly address the treatment of protesters outside the White House or, in some cases, defended it.

Asked if what he saw at the White House was an abuse of power, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump-backed challenger to Cheney decried him as 'racist,' 'xenophobic' in 2016: report FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio MORE (R-Texas) told reporters “by the protesters, yes.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Gen. Milley faces his toughest day yet on Capitol Hill The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio MORE (R-Fla.) contested that the crowd was cleared so that Trump could cross the street, telling reporters "that's not accurate." He also suggested that protesters remained near the White House to try to provoke a response from the police. 

"The bottom line is that there was a curfew at 7 p.m. ... It was 6:45. ... You disobey police orders that you have an unlawful congregation of people. They know the police have to move forward on them, that will trigger the use of tear gas, and it plays right into the imagery that they want," Rubio added.

Asked if it was an abuse of power, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynAbbott bows to Trump pressure on Texas election audit Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Democrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight MORE (R-Texas) replied: “Are you kidding me? No.”

“Security of the president, it’s a national imperative. If the president’s going to be someplace and there's a curfew coming up, then the Secret Service has every authority to clear the place out when people are asked to leave and they refuse to leave,” he said. “So you guys are peddling a false narrative."