WASHINGTON (CN) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a resolution Tuesday that sought to formally condemn President Donald Trump for having disbanded a peaceful protest so he could pose for photos.
“He doesn’t care about justice or law and order,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said of the president during a press conference precipitating McConnell’s maneuver. “He cares only about politics and his ego. … At a time when we need leadership to hold us together, he seems committed to tearing us apart.”
Introduced on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, the resolution from Democrats condemned both the president and the violence and looting that continues to rock the U.S. one week after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody.
Washington is one of dozens of cities where nightly curfews have been enacted to tamp down the back-to-back protests. There was still half an hour to go before curfew on Monday, however, when a group occupying Lafayette Square, a small public park just beyond the northern gates of the White House, were physically dispersed by members of the National Guard, Secret Service and the U.S. Park Police.
Protesters say they were hit with rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in warfare.
Though U.S. Park Police said officers had only deployed smoke canisters, social media posts from those who were in the area say that the inhalants were more noxious than smoke.
Representatives for the Secret Service and National Guard did not return multiple requests for comment. The Trump campaign has denied that tear gas was used.
The dispersal occurred as President Trump was escorted on foot to take photographs outside the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Protesters over the weekend had set a fire in the basement of the landmark, as riots and looting gripped the nation’s capital and other parts of the country. Trump took his photos holding a Bible — upside down — against the sound of the scattering protesters.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker called the treatment of protesters abhorrent.
“Donald Trump, every member of this coequal body should condemn what this president did: Trampling upon the most sacred right of this nation to assemble, to petition, to protest,” Booker said. “What this president did was to make a mockery of our civil rights, I say ours, I was not there in that park, but every one of us should wish we were there.”
The impassioned lawmaker beat his chest with his fist as he spoke at the Capitol Hill press conference.
“If Donald Trump wants to gas someone, next time, start right here,” Booker said. “If he wants to shoot someone with rubber bullets, start right here. If he wants to trample people with horses, come to this body.”
From the Senate floor, McConnell called accused Democrats of concocting a political stunt because of their eagerness to criticize Trump.
The Kentucky Republican called Floyd’s killing “egregious” and did not dispute that the protests are justifiable, but he said the Democrats’ resolution would not ease tensions or stop the violence.
“Those are the two issues that Americans want addressed: racial justice and ending riots,” he said. “Unfortunately, the resolution from my friend the Democratic leader does not address either one of them. Instead, it just indulges in the myopic obsession with President Trump that has come to define the Democratic side of the aisle.”
Booker, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he and fellow Democrats like Senators Kamala Harris of California and Tami Duckworth of Illinois will begin unveiling multiple pieces of legislation in the coming days aimed at sparking law enforcement reforms and ending the disproportionate violence befalling communities and people of color.
There will also be hearings in the House of Representatives if Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, gets his way.
In a terse letter to Secret Service director James Murray, Thompson demanded the chief brief him no later than June 5 on why Trump directed federal agents to attack Americans just so he could “stage a photo opportunity.”
Counselor to President Trump Kellyanne Conway relegated the criticism as the “Sesame Street word of the day,” and questioned how one might “look into somebody’s heart and second-guess their intention” because a picture was taken.
During a Republican leadership press conference before blocking the resolution, Senator McConnell would not comment on whether he believed the president was providing the right kind of leadership as the U.S. deals with unrest, the Covid-19 pandemic and massive job loss.
“I’m not going to critique other people’s performances,” McConnell said.
McConnell said legislation around police reform would be something the Senate needs to consider to determine “what, if anything, is appropriate for us to do in the wake of what’s going on.”
Trump’s vow on Monday to use military force to stop protests unfolding across the U.S. prompted one reporter to ask the Senate minority leader if he felt the U.S. was headed toward a dictatorship.
“Look, we have checks and balances,” Schumer said. “We have us. But we are asking all Americans to fight his abuse of power and his taking away of rights of its citizens. If the past is prologue, he will fail. But only if we stand up.”
Senator Tammy Duckworth, a veteran of the Iraq War, was particularly incensed at the president’s use of military might Monday, which included removing a member of the clergy from the church patio so he could have the photo opportunity, exposing a priest inside to the chemical gas, and later, ordering Blackhawk helicopters to fly over protesters.
“As he was walking there, following behind him there was the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in military fatigues and the secretary of defense walking along like lapdogs behind a draft dodging wannabe tinpot dictator,” the Illinois Democrat said. “I was appalled that this commander in chief was flying Blackhawks above citizens exercising their rights. How dare you insult our military? How dare you pervert the honor of our military by threatening to use them against their fellow Americans? I am sickened to the core by this man.”