STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What really happened last evening around the White House here in this city? The answer can take some analysis even though events unfolded on live TV and live on NPR News. A couple things happened at almost the same time. First, the president spoke from the Rose Garden last evening. He said he supported peaceful protests after the death of a man in police custody in Minneapolis. But he denounced protests in Washington, D.C.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace. As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.
INSKEEP: The president urged governors across the country to use the National Guard, which many have already done. He threatened to use military force if they don't. Now, around the same time as this statement, police used tear gas to push back protesters outside the White House. The tear gas against peaceful protesters cleared the way for the president to stage a photo opportunity. He posed with a Bible in front of a church right after 7 p.m., which was curfew time in D.C. - a curfew that did little to stop the unrest. This was the sound outside the White House last night.
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INSKEEP: OK, so much happening here. We have NPR's Mara Liasson and NPR's Tim Mak with us to talk this through. Good morning to you both.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Tim, what did you hear from people who were in the crowd around the White House last evening?
MAK: Well, what we heard was that, generally speaking, the protests were not violent, had not escalated until after around 6:30 p.m. Law enforcement began clearing the square in front of the White House and used tear gas outside a historic church called St. John's. We spoke to a reverend, Reverend Gini Gerbasi, who used to work at St. John's. And she described hearing loud bangs, feeling an irritating gas in the air and seeing people running from the scene.
GINI GERBASI: It got turned into a battleground for a photo opportunity. And that was a sacrilege. It was a grotesque use of force for the purpose of clearing off that space so the president could come and speak there.
MAK: Julia Dominique, a seminarian and former ER nurse, was on the scene tending to the wounded when she was forced to flee.
JULIA DOMINIQUE: They're trying to have their voices heard. And it gets met with absolutely ridiculous violent force.
MAK: Both of those individuals say that protests were completely peaceful up until that moment tear gas was deployed by law enforcement.
INSKEEP: So Mara, let's talk about the president's statement, the other thing that happened in this sequence of events last evening. He says governors should be more forceful even though many have called out the National Guard without him. He says that he will send in troops if they don't and then goes to St. John's Church and poses with a Bible for the cameras. What was the point of all of this?
LIASSON: Well, the speech was a cracking-down speech. It wasn't about - it was about cracking down, not calming down. And it did, at the beginning, briefly say that he had been sickened and revolted by the death of George Floyd. And his administration has committed that justice should be served for his family. He didn't say how that would happen, didn't talk about any measures to either bring the police officers to justice or measures to stop this kind of incident from happening in the future.
But the rest of the speech was very militaristic. He said, I am your president of law and order. And as you just heard him say, he said that thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers and military personnel have been dispatched. He can do that in Washington, D.C. As far as the threat to the governors, he didn't nationalize the - he didn't federalize the National Guard. He kind of intimated that he might do that if, he said, mayors and governors do not establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence. He said if they don't, I'll deploy the United States military. Although, he has not yet taken any steps to do that.
INSKEEP: And I feel we need to add here reporting from our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, indicating that the president may not even have done that in Washington, D.C. Tom Bowman reporting that the D.C. mobilized its own National Guard. They've requested National Guard forces from other states because D.C. doesn't have very many of them. But that seems to have happened, Tom says, at the request of D.C. authorities, not at the order of the president of the United States.
LIASSON: Right. It's kind of similar to his approach to the pandemic, where he says, at the same time, I have total authority, but the responsibility is the governors'. If he did federalize the National Guard, he'd be responsible for what happens after that.
INSKEEP: So a dramatic statement, the import of which is not at all clear, but also this dramatic moment on the streets, Tim Mak. And you gave us the protesters' perspective. Let's talk about what the president did once the protesters were shoved out of the way. He walks to St. John's Episcopal Church, this beautiful, yellow church across Lafayette Park from the White House. He holds up a Bible. Why do that?
MAK: Well St. John's Church is a church of significant historical importance. As you mentioned, it was - it's located right across the street from the White House. And it's been visited by every president since James Madison. President Lincoln preferred one of the back pews, for example. So after authorities cleared protesters from the park, the president made that short walk and stood holding a Bible, pausing for a photo.
INSKEEP: And we should mention also, this is a church that was targeted. There was a small fire set in one of the rooms there. There have been a number of stores looted, some violence in D.C. Are the protesters insisting, though, that most of them are peaceful?
MAK: Yeah. The vast majority of the protests were peaceful. I spoke to Laura Smith (ph) of Falls Church, Va. She has lupus. And she said that she had come out to the demonstrations because she couldn't take it anymore, and that if she didn't stand up and protest, then she'd be just as wrong as those who had committed injustices. Largely speaking, the protesters that we saw yesterday were peaceful. And violence didn't escalate until law enforcement started using that tear gas, like I mentioned earlier.
INSKEEP: NPR's Tim Mak and NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks to you both.
MAK: Thank you.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.