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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 John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline 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 RomneyThe spectre of pension failures haunts this election The Memo: Five reasons why Trump could upset the odds Will anyone from the left realize why Trump won — again? MORE (R-Utah) told reporters. 

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOvernight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand screening of foreign visitors Democrat announces 2022 bid for Ron Johnson's seat 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 CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyTwo Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Michigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 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 EnziBottom line Chamber of Commerce endorses McSally for reelection Cynthia Lummis wins GOP Senate primary in Wyoming 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 HawleyTrump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade Infrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs MORE (R-Mo.) and Mike BraunMichael BraunSenators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Trump is out of touch with Republican voters on climate change GOP to Trump: Focus on policy 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 McConnellMcConnell: Battle for Senate 'a 50-50 proposition' 'Packing' federal courts is already a serious problem What a Biden administration should look like 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 BarrPolice accountability board concludes that Seattle police officers used excessive force during encounters with protesters Trump hasn't asked Barr to open investigation into Bidens, McEnany says Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money 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 CollinsGideon holds 3-point lead over Collins in new poll The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - One week out, where the Trump, Biden race stands The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in November, said that it was “painful to watch.” And Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiAlaska Senate race sees cash surge in final stretch Bitter fight over Barrett fuels calls to nix filibuster, expand court The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Justice Barrett joins court; one week until Election Day 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 ScottFrom HBCUs to Capitol Hill: How Congress can play an important role Democrats unveil bill to reduce police violence against people with mental illness Liberals should embrace Trump's Supreme Court nominee MORE (R-S.C.), the only black Republican senator, told Politico

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseTrump looks to shore up support in Nebraska GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him 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.

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Asked if what he saw at the White House was an abuse of power, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Tech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Trump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members MORE (R-Texas) told reporters “by the protesters, yes.”

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Rubio warns that election interference may ramp up around Election Day Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus 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 CornynCook moves Texas to 'toss-up' Biden pushes into Trump territory Cruz: Hunter Biden attacks don't move 'a single voter' 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."