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GOP criticism muted on Trump’s handling of protests

Matthew Daly
Associated Press

Washington — Most Republicans continued Tuesday to avoid any criticism of President Donald Trump, though a handful of GOP senators spoke out against police use of tear gas to clear peaceful demonstrators from a park near the White House so Trump could walk to a nearby church and pose with a Bible.

“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property … 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,’’ said Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said he did not think Trump’s visit to St. John’s Church was helpful. Scott said it was not something he would have done.

“Obviously, if your question is, should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo-op, the answer is no,” Scott told Politico Tuesday, while noting he did not personally see the incident.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it was “painful to watch peaceful protestors be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once.’’ While Americans are justifiably upset that the historic church was set on fire and vandalized, “I thought that the president came across as unsympathetic and insensitive,’’ she said.

At a time when a president “ought to be trying to calm the nation,″ Trump did not do that, said Collins, who is running for reelection and is considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents.

Sasse, who has at times criticized Trump but won his endorsement for reelection, said public officials nationwide “should be lowering the temperature” over protests and violence following the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired and one has been charged with murder in Floyd’s death.

“Police injustice — like the evil murder of George Floyd — is repugnant and merits peaceful protest aimed at change,’’ Sasse said, adding that “riots are abhorrent acts of violence that hurt the innocent.’’ Both messages should be heard as Americans work to end violence and injustice, Sasse said.

The comments by the three GOP senators were among the strongest by Republicans following Trump’s demand Monday to end the heated protests and his vow to use military force to achieve that if necessary. Republicans have frequently muted any criticism of Trump, and only GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment in February.

After Trump’s hardline speech Monday in the White House Rose Garden, the president walked to nearby St. John’s Church, where he held up a Bible for photographers. Trump’s actions drew widespread condemnation from Democrats and religious leaders who said he was misusing the Bible and the church where presidents have prayed for more than 150 years.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking GOP senator, said that “as a general matter, I always think it’s a good thing for our elected leaders to be spending time at church.’’ Still, Thune said views of Trump’s actions were “going to be in the eye of the beholder. His supporters are going to think … he was standing up for the things he believes in and they believe in. His detractors are going to say it was a photo op.’’

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.”

On Trump’s threat to send in the military to quell violence, Cornyn and Thune said they hope Trump does not resort to that.

While Trump “arguably” has the authority to use military force, “so far he hasn’t done it,’’ Cornyn said. “Hopefully, he won’t do it. It won’t be necessary. And we will try to bring some peace back to our communities.”

Thune said he would “prefer that these things be handled by the state and local authorities. You want to de-escalate, rather than escalate.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to comment on Trump’s actions, but said he was relieved there were no deaths and few injuries in the nation’s capital Monday night. McConnell condemned rioting in his home city of Louisville and other cities, even as he said the nation is united in horror and opposition to Floyd’s death.

“The legitimate and important voices of peaceful protesters will never be heard over the wailing of fire alarms, the smashing of plate-glass windows, and the sirens of ambulances coming for police officers who have been assaulted or shot in the head,’’ McConnell said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he was glad Trump went to a “historic church in our capital city that was firebombed by terrorists. It was important for the president to be there and say we will not be cowed by terrorists. All of us have a First Amendment right to speak, but you don’t have a right to burn a church.’’

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Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this story.