“An Abuse of Sacred Symbols”: Trump, a Bible, and a Sanctuary

On Monday, after peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas, the President stood before St. John’s Episcopal Church and held a Bible like a product on a home-shopping network.

As the hours ticked down to prime time, the White House prepared its unholy production. It was Monday afternoon, and President Trump was getting ready to deliver his first speech on the massive protests sweeping the country. After unflattering reports that he had spent Friday evening in a bunker, Trump summoned the press corps to the Rose Garden for maximum effect. Never mind that the chaos had given way to peaceful demonstrations outside the White House. Men and women, along the sunny edge of Lafayette Park, chanted and knelt. A young boy and girl, flanking their father, held protest signs. A vender touted coronavirus masks bearing the grim slogan of our time: “I Can’t Breathe.”

In the course of the day, the city had started mending the wounds of the night before. A worker power-washed graffiti from the stone wall of a steak house. Crews mounted plywood over the shattered windows of a jewelry store and a battered A.T.M. Spray-painted slogans—“George Floyd” and “Fuck the Police” and “Free the People”—offered a condensed history of yet another grievous week in America, which began on May 25th, when Floyd died, on video, with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on his neck.

Normally, one of the most striking features of the White House is its nearness. For years, tourists who stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue have been startled to come so close to the building, which is situated with a confident, open face to the world, a contrast to the secluded warrens of power in Beijing or Moscow. In recent months, that has been less true. Last summer, the Trump Administration started building a new thirteen-foot fence, twice the height of the old one, equipped with “anti-climb and intrusion detection technology.” It closed off Pennsylvania Avenue to pedestrians and cloaked the building behind a tall, white construction wall. When protests gave way to violence over the weekend, police expanded the realm of isolation, sealing off Lafayette Park and pushing the public farther away. On Monday, protesters returned to nearby streets. By late afternoon, several hundred had gathered.

For many in the crowd, Floyd’s death was the final spark to a reservoir of anger and despair. “It’s all of it. It’s all of it together,” Kandyce Baker, a thirty-one-year-old woman who held a sign with a painting of Floyd’s face, told me. “I think the tipping point for me started with Ahmaud Arbery. I’m an avid runner. I have a lot of friends who are avid runners. I ran nine marathons, and that could have been me. That could’ve easily been one of my friends.” (Arbery, who was twenty-five, was shot to death in February by two men while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia.) She added, “And then, after that, with Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd. It’s like having a Rodney King every day.”

Baker, who has a master’s degree in criminology, told me, “Not only do you have police protecting each other, but you also have police of color who are afraid to speak up because of the blue code of silence. And whether it’s because of retaliation, because they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their jobs . . . the police culture is incredibly toxic.”

After a while, the crowd began to drift east, toward the Capitol. Some stayed behind at the White House, where the scene was quieter than it had been for hours. Holding aloft a yellow sign reading “Trump Coward,” Anita, a Virginia woman with long blond hair, told me, “I am a registered Republican. This man has disgraced my political party. I will be changing political parties after this.” She wore black capri pants and a white T-shirt with the American flag on it. For a while, she explained, she had credited Trump with a strong economy. For more than three years, she stayed loyal; she liked to imagine that he was best for business. She said, “I gave him that much time. And, as the days have gone by, the insult from this President is just too much to take. All he’s done is hide in his fucking house over here.”

I asked Anita when she had decided to change her political affiliation. “Yesterday was it,” she said. She had watched the video of Floyd’s death, and it left her shaken. “Any one of us with even a little bit of humanity, it absolutely broke our hearts.” Her voice cracked. “Every police department in this country needs to change. They should never be allowed to touch a person’s head or neck. Why would they even need to do that?”

She went on, “It makes you question—what have they done in the past that we don’t know about, that’s not on video? All of the complaints from the black community now become just real complaints that have been happening. The reality of what they’ve been living in for years just becomes that much more real.”

As the afternoon wore on, and the shadows lengthened, a cascade of political theatrics was beginning to unfold. New clusters of police filtered into Lafayette Park; some wore olive-green uniforms and swat-team-style helmets and carried tear-gas launchers. The President was going to speak, and the stage management was getting underway. At 6:40, twenty minutes before a curfew was to go into effect, police with riot shields on their arms pressed toward the crowd, driving it back, as some people held their hands in the air. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as men and women scattered. Officers swung batons at reporters holding cameras and microphones.

In the Rose Garden, reporters could hear flash grenades detonating on the streets outside. Trump, looking tense and reading from a teleprompter, started by nodding to the cause of the unrest—he said that Americans were “rightly sickened and revolted” by Floyd’s death—but then he made a play for an image of strength. Declaring himself a “President of law and order,” he called the looting and violent demonstrations “acts of domestic terror.” He vowed to “dominate the streets” and promised an “overwhelming law-enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.” He added, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Intended or not, the juxtaposition with the scene outside was damning and ludicrous. CNN carried the President’s remarks on a split screen with images of police advancing through the crowds. A moment later, a chyron noted, “Trump says he’s an ‘ally of peaceful protesters’ as police fire tear gas, rubber bullets on peaceful protesters near WH.”

The production, it turned out, had only just begun. After the streets around Lafayette Park had been cleared and the tear gas had wafted away, Trump set out from the White House on foot. He was accompanied by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, and a coterie of attendants. They headed toward St. John’s Episcopal Church, the small yellow sanctuary known as the Church of Presidents, because it has welcomed the nation’s leaders since the days of James Madison. The night before, St. John’s had been vandalized with graffiti, and a fire had burned the basement. And yet, throughout Monday afternoon, members of the clergy had been out front, offering water and aid to protesters.

Trump stalked across the park, weaving past the monuments, with his security detail skittering around him. When he reached the sanctuary, he did not go inside. Instead, he turned toward the camera, and members of his entourage assembled into a tableau so bizarre that it took a moment to understand what was unfolding. He held up a Bible and posed with it for the cameras, clasping it to his chest, bouncing it in his hand, turning it to and fro, like a product on QVC. He did not offer a prayer or read from scripture. On either side of him, his aides fidgeted awkwardly; there was the droopy, basset-hound visage of his enabling Attorney General, William Barr; his unrelenting cheerleader Mark Meadows, the chief of staff; his spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany, who grinned madly. Apart from Ivanka Trump, none wore masks.

When at last it was over and the President’s expedition had returned to the White House, the church rebelled. In a seething call with CNN, the Right Reverend Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, said that she was “outraged” by Trump’s use of St. John’s as a prop. “I can’t believe what my eyes are seeing tonight,” she said. “What on earth did we just witness?” Driving away a peaceful crowd with tear gas and weapons in order to stage a photo op was an “abuse of sacred symbols,” she said. A visiting pastor was tear-gassed in the charade. “The President just used a Bible . . . and one of the churches of my diocese without permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything our churches stand for.”

Even now, after all that the country has endured in the past three and a half years, there are moments when it can feel as if we are wandering through a farce so bleak and implausible that it tests the mind. In the days ahead, the country will be left to sift the President’s offenses from his fantasies: Will the military actually open fire on its people? Will some state governors act on Trump’s ravings about “dominating” the streets? Will the virus that has, briefly, been eclipsed in the headlines by the protests come roaring back? All of these questions remain unaddressed by an Administration that lacks the knowledge or the sophistication to contend with them.

For now, as his people pleaded for leadership, a President with no personal understanding of strength or spirit offered a crude simulation of them. He assembled a pageant of symbols that he knows have power over others—the Bible, the gun, and the shield. And he tossed them together in a cruel jumble of nonsense.

Evan Osnos