‘Baffling and reprehensible’: Archbishop of Washington condemns Trump’s visit to Catholic shrine

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the first African American archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, condemned President Donald Trump's visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine Tuesday, saying the president's visit in the wake of his Monday threats to use military force against protesters "violates our religious principles.“

The president toured the shrine on Tuesday in his second straight religious-themed appearance after he declared himself to be the “president of law and order” Monday.

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“I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree,” according to a statement released by Archbishop Gregory. “Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings. His legacy bears vivid witness to that truth. He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship and peace.”

On Tuesday’s drive to the shrine, Trump’s motorcade sped past National Guard members deployed around the World War II Memorial. Some onlookers along the route booed, held “black lives matter” signs and made obscene gestures as the convoy rolled past.

The violent dispersal of peaceful protests near the White House the night before was a potent symbol of Trump’s policing tactics. Moments before 6:30 p.m. on Monday, just when Trump said he would begin his Rose Garden address, U.S. Secret Service agents, Park Police and National Guardsmen suddenly marched forward, directly confronting the protesters as many held up their hands, saying, “Don’t shoot.”

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Soon, law enforcement officers were aggressively forcing the protesters back, firing tear gas and deploying flash bangs into the crowd to disperse them from the park. It was a jarring scene as police in the nation's capital forcefully cleared young men and women gathered legally in a public park on a sunny evening, all of it on live television.

With smoke still wafting and isolated tussles continuing in the crowd, Trump emerged in the Rose Garden for a dramatic split-screen of his own creation.

“I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters," he declared, before demanding that governors across the nation deploy the National Guard "in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets."

And he warned that, if they refused, he would deploy the United States military “and quickly solve the problem for them.”

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As an additional show of force, Trump announced he was deploying even more of the military to Washington, D.C., giving it the feel of an armed, locked-down city after days of violent clashes, arson and looting.

“As we speak I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers," he said, as explosions rang out in the background. “We are putting everybody on warning.”

Then, before departing, Trump announced he wasn't done for the evening, and would be "going to pay my respects to a very very special place.”

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Trump crossed H Street and walked toward St. John’s Episcopal Church, the landmark pale yellow building where every president, including Trump, has prayed. It had been damaged Sunday night in a protest fire.

Trump, standing alone in front of cameras, then raised a black-covered Bible for reporters to see.

“We have a great country,” Trump said. “Greatest country in the world.”

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He didn’t talk about George Floyd, the church or the damage it had suffered, or the peaceful protesters police he had cleared. He said nothing about the coronavirus pandemic, the parallel crisis that has continued to ravage the nation as Trump campaigns for a second presidential term. Trump invited his attorney general, national security adviser, chief of staff, press secretary and defense secretary to join him for another round of photos before he walked back across the park to the White House.

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington sharply criticized the president on Monday for staging the visit to the historic St. John's Church across from the White House.

The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, whose diocese St. John's belongs to, said in a statement that she was “outraged” by Trump's visit and noted that he didn’t pray while stopping by the church, a landmark known for its regular visits from sitting presidents since the early 19th century.

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"He took the symbols sacred to our tradition and stood in front of a house of prayer in full expectation that would be a celebratory moment," Budde said in an interview after her statement on Trump's visit was posted to the diocese's Twitter account.

Claiming he is backed by a “silent majority,” the president turned the nation’s capital into a model for the overwhelming force he believes critical to stopping sometimes-violent protests that have spread across the country amid a time of racial unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd during an encounter with Minneapolis police on May 25. Trump’s tactics were decried Tuesday by some fellow Republicans as well as his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I just wish he opened it once in a while,” Biden stated, referring to the Bible the president held during his photo op in front of the Catholic shrine.

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Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., called Trump's walk to the church “confrontational” and said it "distracted from his important message in the Rose Garden about our national grief, racism, peaceful protests and lawful assembly.'' That message "was drowned out by an awkward photo op,'' Lankford said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Trump likely "thought this would be some unifying message, but of course it was for half the country, and the other half were outraged by it. And that’s just where we are, sadly.”

“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” said Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. “But 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.”

The president has threatened that if states do not take tough enough action, he will deploy active duty military across the country to quell unrest in the wake of the death of Floyd.

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Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down and pressed on Floyd’s neck with his knee as the man pleaded that he couldn’t breathe. Violent demonstrations have raged in scores of American cities, marking a level of unrest unseen for decades.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.