And Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said it was “definitely not” right for peaceful protesters, who were gathered around Lafayette Park in front of the White House, to be sprayed with tear gas. And he criticized the president for walking to St. John’s Episcopal Church right before the 7 p.m. curfew, because “everyone knew there were going to be protesters in that area.”
“Doing what I thought was a really good speech — then that visual, that photo-op distracted from the message he had just given in the Rose Garden,” said Lankford, who led a student minister group before coming to Congress. “I just thought, this visual and this message don’t line up.”
The gentle criticism highlights growing concern among Republicans about the president’s inflammatory response to the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing by a Minnesota police officer — all with the backdrop of a global pandemic and the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican senator, was even more direct, saying at a POLITICO event that “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.”
During his Rose Garden address Monday, Trump declared himself the “president of law and order” and threatened to end the protests by sending in the military — a move supported by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Shortly thereafter, Trump walked to the church and posed with a bible.
Democrats ripped Trump’s theatrics as cowardly and dangerous. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered a resolution Tuesday stating that “Congress condemns the President of the United States for ordering federal officers to use gas and rubber bullets against the Americans who were peaceably protesting in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC on the night of June 1, 2020.”
Schumer intends to seek unanimous consent to pass the resolution, though Republicans will surely block it.
Some Republicans argued the president’s message was unifying, pointing to his Rose Garden comments condemning the killing of Floyd in addition to the violence and looting. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said succinctly of Trump: “He’s leading.” Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said Trump showed that he “wants to get something done.”
Others found the president still lacking in empathy. For the second consecutive day, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) urged the president to ease tensions rather than inflame them.
“I hope he projects calm. I hope people act calmly,” Thune told reporters Tuesday. “He has moments. But I mean, as you know, it lasts generally as long as the next tweet.”
But Senate Republicans also defended the address and argued that criticism of the president largely depended on one’s personal opinion of the president. Some also cited conflicting reports about whether tear gas was actually used — though reporters and eyewitnesses on the scene said police officers did, in fact, spray tear gas.
“My impression was he thought this was some unifying message. But of course, it was for half the country,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “And the other half were outraged by it, and that’s just where we are, sadly.”
During a party meeting Tuesday, Republican senators did not discuss the president’s actions or their disparate views of whether Trump had acted appropriately, several senators said afterward.
“Zero,” said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana when asked if there had been discussion.
The Rose Garden address came after some Republicans urged the president to speak to the nation and try to unite the public, particularly after he harshly criticized governors on a call Monday for being “weak” and called on them to “dominate” the protesters. Trump also has devoted many of his tweets to attacking presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and touting his poll numbers.
GOP senators also largely stood by the president’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 in order to deploy U.S. troops into American towns and cities, speaking out en masse against the violence that has plagued major U.S. cities in recent days.
“The president talking that way will put a little spine in some of these governors that aren’t calling out the National Guard, to the extent that they need to, to restore order,” said Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
“It should be used sparingly. And it obviously shouldn’t be used if there’s peaceful demonstrations,” added Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “But if we have law-breaking people that take advantage of peaceful solutions to riot and to loot and to burn, then I would expect … that he would be there to help them.”
Despite the protests from some Republicans, much of the chiding amounts to simple rhetoric. And some want a broader focus on putting an end to the unrest.
“Just look at the pictures of that crowd and tell me those are real protesters and not professional agitators, some with a different agenda completely unrelated to the murder of Mr. Floyd,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), adding the focus should be on racial equality and “not this anarchy, violence and injustice that’s going on in cities across America.”