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Lafayette Square could decide Trump's election and legacy

By AP News | June 18th 2020 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

Protesters demonstrate in Lafayette Park near the White House in Washington, Sunday, June 14, 2020. [AP Photo/Patrick Semansky]

Charlottesville. Helsinki. The children in cages at the Mexican border. And now Lafayette Square.

Only a few legacy-defining moments have clung to President Donald Trump, who often appears to emerge relatively unscathed from a seemingly endless stream of crises and controversies. But the forceful clearing of demonstrators from the park across from the White House has resonated like few others, prompting top military leaders and usually lockstep Republicans to distance themselves from him.

It is one of those rare images that seems unlikely to be overwritten by tomorrow's headlines, instead claiming a prominent place in Trump's entry in the history books. It also could help shape an election less than five months away. Even the president and members of his inner circle have privately expressed worry that its impact could be lasting.

"It's an indelible moment when the president of the United States ordered the use of force against peaceful protesters using their First Amendment rights in order to walk across Lafayette Square" and hoist a Bible, said Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "In 10 minutes, he totally disgraced his office and committed sacrilege."

White House bunker

Protests, some violent, had flooded America's streets after the death of George Floyd, a black man who was pinned under the knee of a white Minnesota police officer.

Trump had briefly been forced to take shelter in the emergency White House bunker, and flames had risen from St. John's Church across from the executive mansion. Lafayette Square was ordered to be cleared.

What happened was broadcast live to the nation: federal law enforcement officers using batons, shields and chemical agents to forcibly push back peaceful protesters.

Trump walked to the church and awkwardly held up a Bible, accompanied by top officials. The White House quickly produced a slick ad celebrating the triumph.

The ad doesn't run anymore. Aides have pointed fingers at each other as to who suggested what while some of Washington's most prominent figures, perhaps with an eye toward the judgment of history, have tried to keep their distance.

Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he wasn't aware of what Trump had planned before he joined him. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a remarkable public apology for participating. Several Republicans, including Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, denounced the use of force and the display of religion.

The president has seethed about what transpired, believing he wasn't properly prepared by aides for the blowback and venting that media coverage was unfair, according to three White House and campaign officials not authorised to publicly discuss private conversations.

He was angered by Milley and Esper's rebukes but, for now, doesn't want them dismissed, the officials said.

The Trump campaign, looking at internal polling, is worried about a drop in support for the president coming amid questions about his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 120,000 Americans and put more than 40 million out of work. And some in Trump's inner circle have privately likened it to other dark days in his presidency.


President Donald Trump
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