On Monday, the percussive bang of flash grenades echoed in the Rose Garden and an acrid odor from chemical dispersant wafted over a presidential photo opportunity.
On Tuesday, the nation’s most prominent televangelist delivered his rebuke. The country’s senior-most military brass followed on Wednesday.
By Thursday, the White House began to resemble a fortress. And on Friday, President Donald Trump awoke to giant yellow letters painted on the street a block away from his home reminding him black lives matter.
The first week of June unfolded in historic bursts, five days of turmoil and tension the President watched unfold mostly from inside an ever-expanding buffer of security, its borders patrolled by a militarized police force and its resemblance to a wartime rampart striking.
The highly charged moment encapsulated the tensions of the Trump era, landing squarely at the intersection of authoritarian order and racial grievance. As Trump stretched the limits of executive power and fretted about appearing weak, his willingness and ability to address the civic, health and economic crises buckling the nation were deeply challenged.
Trump spent much of the week out of public view after a photo opportunity near St. John’s Church on Monday devolved into a violent, chemical-misted spectacle that was widely condemned and which prompted harsh internal recriminations for those responsible for its execution.
Behind the gates of an ever-more-fortified White House, Trump lashed out in the Oval Office at officials who appeared less-than-committed to his “law and order” approach and mostly ignored suggestions he at least attempt to unify a country ripping along racial and ideological seams. Instead, the President appeared to aides consumed by his worsening political prospects, fixated on how he was being portrayed on television and concerned by warnings from some of his allies that his response to nationwide protests conveyed weakness.
Determined to appear like a leader in command – and with images flashing through his mind of a stoic Winston Churchill surveying bombed-out London during the Blitz – Trump fixated on the nation’s capital city, which he came to regard as a test of his ability to quell unrest and provide security for an uneasy country.
He was irate when word of his retreat to the secure bunker five stories beneath the White House leaked, demanding to know who would have disclosed that information to the press. Later, he falsely claimed he was merely in the bunker to inspect it. Yet at moments over the past week, Trump has appeared shaken as protests – mostly peaceful but at times volatile – continued outside the White House.
When he emerged victorious on Friday following a shock jobs report showing 2.5 million payrolls added in May, Trump didn’t linger on the racial inequalities that have sent Americans to the streets in protest. Instead, he suggested George Floyd – the black man who whose killing in Minneapolis prompted a new national reckoning on race – would be happy about the current national status. The President has held no listening sessions with the black community or introduced any police reform proposals as protests have continued to grip the nation.
Enraged at the start of this week to discover he was being depicted cowering in an underground shelter, by Friday, Trump was living in a White House complex that had itself become a bunker – a 115-acre bulwark surrounding a President whose leadership and competence are reaching straining points by parallel crises of historic proportions.
Trump had intended to spend this weekend at his fenced private golf club in New Jersey as tens of thousands of protesters descend on Washington to demand action on systemic racism and police brutality but aides raised concerns about the optics of him golfing as protests were expected to continue.
Instead, he remains in an ever-more-militarized city, where what unfolded this week – both inside and outside his expanding protective bubble – may be remembered as among the most consequential in memory.
Even after a weekend of heated and violent clashes outside the executive mansion, on Monday morning the White House perimeter appeared normal.
When Trump arrived to the Oval Office midday, aides were already aware of his indignation over what, by then, was known simply as the “bunker story.” Highly attuned to his lifelong aversion to appearing weak, even those staffers who hadn’t spoken to him knew a report about his hour-long escape to an underground bunker would cause problems.
Those assumptions were confirmed when Trump unbraided aides and demanded to know from senior staff, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, communications adviser Hope Hicks and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who had leaked the information.
Moreover, Trump insisted on finding a way to reverse the impression he was cowering beneath the White House, silent and invisible, as the nation convulsed from protests that had in some places turned violent. First lady Melania Trump had been shaken by the ordeal, and opted to remain at the White House instead of leaving Washington for the planned space launch the next day, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Trump wasn’t seen on Sunday and spent most of Monday behind closed doors – leading to concern even from some of his allies that he was absent at a moment of national crisis. He had received blunt warnings from usual allies that he would lose the election in November if he didn’t immediately quell the violence happening across major US cities, including his own. Trump said he was being unfairly blamed for the situation, but the message seemed to break through. He began the day upset over the bunker coverage and determined to shift the narrative toward one of stamping out violence.
In a morning Oval Office meeting with top national security officials, Trump was presented with the option of invoking the Insurrection Act, an early 19th-century provision that would allow him to order active duty forces to tamp down on unrest. The idea appeared to some an overreach but others, including Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, seemed in favor. Others questioned whether the President was serious.
The meeting grew so intense that raised voices could be heard down the hallway from the Oval Office. In the same meeting, Trump repeatedly voiced concern that he appeared weak and unable to keep Americans safe from harm.
Though his press secretary had spent the better part of the morning arguing that another presidential address was not what the nation needed, Trump told aides he had decided to make one that evening.
The two issues – controlling violence and improving the optics – seemed to converge when Trump later raised the notion of emerging from the White House gates to walk to St. John’s Church, whose basement fire he’d seen covered the previous evening on cable news.
While it was Trump who came up with the idea of the church visit, Hicks and Meadows along with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his daughter Ivanka Trump, were involved in the initial planning of the operation, according to two senior White House officials.
Outside the White House, Attorney General William Barr – who had participated in the earlier heated Oval Office meeting and was personally surveying the scene – was surprised to find Lafayette Square remained full of protesters, even though he’d ordered a wider perimeter around the White House following the weekend clashes.
As reporters were hastily assembled in the Rose Garden for brief remarks before Trump’s walk, Barr gave the order to clear the park – an operation that saw peaceful protesters dispersed with chemicals and flash bangs in a violent melee destined for history books.
By the next morning, the 8-foot steel fences ordinarily used during inaugurations or world leader summits had been trucked in to fortify the White House. And White House aides were on the defensive about what had occurred the previous evening.
Trump himself seemed pleased with how the walk to St. John’s had proceeded and did not appear overly concerned at accusations he was drifting toward autocracy. He was insistent on putting forward a show of resolve, and was overheard telling his wife Melania – whose tweets supporting peace and healing have rankled some in the West Wing – to smile during a visit to a Catholic shrine.
Even the outing to the Saint John Paul II shrine became clouded in controversy when the Archbishop of Washington questioned why any Catholic facility would “allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.”
As other critics of Monday’s mayhem emerged – ranging from the bishop who oversees St. John’s, who called the episode a “charade,” to South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only black Republican, who said tear gas shouldn’t have been used to clear protesters, to Pat Robertson, the prominent televangelist, who said “you just don’t do that” – some White House officials scrambled to engineer explanations for the incident.
The White House insisted the decision to clear protesters from the park was unrelated to Trump’s decision to walk from the White House to the church, claiming Barr had already decided to expand the security perimeter hours before a 7 p.m. ET curfew mandated by Washington’s mayor. Trump questioned why the removal tactics were being criticized, given the protests had turned violent the night before.
And after extensive discussion between various administration entities – including the White House, the Secret Service, and the Departments of Justice and Interior – the US Park Police released a statement denying its officers used tear gas to disperse protesters from Lafayette Park, insisting instead they’d used “pepper balls.”
That the US government defines “pepper balls” as a type of tear gas did not appear to dampen the administration’s efforts to paint media coverage of the incident as skewed and Democrats as pro-violence.
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Still, the incident on Monday caused some private concerns internally that Trump had taken a desire to project “law and order” authority too far. The hurried logistical efforts that went into the 17-minute walk seemed to many officials half-baked, particularly the apparent lack of a plan for what Trump would do when he arrived outside the yellow Greek Revival church. Instead of bowing his head in prayer or speaking with church officials, who had no idea he was coming, Trump awkwardly held up a bible his daughter carried over in her designer handbag.
Also concerning to some aides was the lack of any racial diversity in the group which accompanied the President on his walk, despite the issues of racial injustice that underpin the current civic unrest.
The President has only a few senior African American advisers and his sole black Cabinet member, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, was not present, though Trump and Carson spoke by phone earlier Monday. Aides later admitted that was a visual mistake.
While some White House officials had begun preliminary steps toward arranging a “listening session” with black leaders at the start of the week, such an event never materialized – at least for Trump. Vice President Mike Pence participated in such a panel on Friday.
The President, meanwhile, has not addressed at length the issues of racial inequity that other American leaders – from the corporate world to academia to all four of his living presidential predecessors – are now wrestling with publicly.
As the week wore on, the perimeter surrounding the White House was grew. Ranks of law enforcement officials – some of whom refused to identify their agency – stood sentry carrying riot gear.
Inside the gates, officials were aware that Defense Secretary Mark Esper – who’d been at the White House for meetings earlier in the week and did not appear at great odds with the President – would be convening a news conference at the Pentagon.
But they were unprepared for what he would say. Esper distance