White House mood darkens as Trump battles with James Mattis, criticism over Bible photo op

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President Donald Trump struggled to pivot away from an avalanche of bad news Thursday even as White House aides acknowledged feeling under siege from protesters, the coronavirus and the media.

Over the past 24 hours, the White House has confronted a public split between the president and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a blistering denunciation by his former top Pentagon official James Mattis, a new jobs report documenting an additional 1.9 million Americans filed initial unemployment claims and lingering questions about the decision to clear a park of peaceful protesters Monday for a presidential photo op.

Even for a president who has long courted chaos, it’s been a tumultuous week.

“It’s almost as though sometimes the media is telling us, ‘Shame on you, Donald Trump, shame on you, the administration, for not allowing protesters, rioters and looters to come back and finish the job they started,’ ” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Thursday. Protesters set a fire at St. John’s Church Sunday night, but the demonstrators in Lafayette Square on Monday were not rioting.

The official White House message has been to criticize media coverage of the president’s decision to clear Lafayette Square so the president could hold a Bible for cameras at St. John’s Church. Some aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged the images of police clearing the park was not a good look, though they insisted Trump’s intentions were to put pressure on rioters, not peaceful protesters.

The events have darkened the mood at the White House, those aides said.

“It damaged presidential credibility,” said Matt Bennett with the center left think tank Third Way, who was a White House official during President Bill Clinton’s administration. “The White House and the government simply lied about the assault, claiming there was no use of force when the entire world could see that there was.”

Trump has wrestled with how to respond to not only the protests but also the underlying angst over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes as he pleaded for breath. Floyd’s death stirred nationwide outrage and demands for action to address police brutality toward African Americans. Trump eschewed the opportunity for a national address calling for unity and healing. The vacuum was filled by damaging news.

Administration officials said it was Ivanka Trump’s idea for the president to go to the church Monday but insisted she was not involved in executing the plan. The clearing of Lafayette Park – in which authorities used pepper spray and other forceful measures – prompted bipartisan criticism from Capitol Hill. A much larger turnout of protesters arrived at the White House the next day.

Brian Greenberg, 67, a semiretired climate change consultant from Washington, said he turned out Wednesday to honor Floyd and protest Trump.

“It all starts about a quarter-mile over there at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said. “I deplore Donald Trump. He is causing so much pain.”

Greenberg carried a hand-drawn two-sided sign. One side read, “Shame! Shame! Military goon squads and a tinpot President.” On the other side, Greenberg poked fun at Trump’s response when reporters asked him Monday if the book he was holding in front of the church was “your Bible.”

“It’s a Bible,” Trump responded.

“Trump’s answer to national pain and despair,” Greenberg’s sign read. “‘It’s a Bible.'”

Trump and other White House officials were caught off guard Wednesday by Esper’s announcement that he opposes using the U.S. military to quiet domestic unrest, a break with Trump so severe that it raised speculation about Esper’s longevity at the Pentagon. Trump had threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send troops into states.

Esper said he opposed that idea based on the situation.

Hours later, Esper’s predecessor penned an op-ed blasting Trump as “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” The criticism was particularly noteworthy because Mattis – once hailed by Trump as one of “my generals” – has rarely taken aim at the White House since leaving the administration.

“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens – much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis wrote in The Atlantic.

In part because the coronavirus has forced a suspension of rallies and other campaign events, the hits come at a perilous moment for Trump’s reelection. Polls show Trump struggling against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in some battleground states. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week indicated that a majority of Americans sympathize with Floyd protesters over Trump’s rhetoric.

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