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Real revolts within the congressional GOP over Donald Trump’s words and deeds have been rare over the last three years. And it didn’t take long to see that one of the starkest moments of the Trump presidency—the clearing of White House protesters with gas so he could cross the street to St. John’s Church to hold up a Bible for the cameras—was not going to be one of them.
As the fallout from the photo op seen around the world settled on Tuesday, Senate Republicans found themselves in a familiar spot: offering a mix of defiant support for whatever it was that liberals were mad at Trump about, attempts at justification for Trump’s conduct, and plenty of attempts to claim they actually hadn’t seen enough to comment.
Asked by a reporter if what happened on Monday night outside the White House was an abuse of power, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) replied in the affirmative—“by the protesters,” Cruz noted, before winding up a diatribe against so-called the “Antifa” instigators who are the president’s favored explanation for the unrest gripping the nation.
“I think the president was trying to make a statement to the American people that peaceful protests are as American as baseball,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told reporters. “But burning down a church isn’t legal. Enforcing the law is not a racist act.”
Amid that usual mix, however, a number of GOP senators did express at the very least public discomfort at the notion that the president would use his power to disperse a peaceful protest in pursuit of political theater. And the group included several lawmakers not known for being frequent or even occasional Trump critics.
“I think I get what he was trying to say, that as Americans we should be able to go any place at any time,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) told The Daily Beast. “But the whole event at St. John’s seemed to distract from the good speech he had just given,” he said, referencing the Rose Garden remarks Trump had just delivered, in which he vowed to fight for justice for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by police, but also fight “dangerous thugs” among the crowds taking to the streets across the country.
“To me, it’s kind of like unruly rioting right after a good protest on free speech,” Lankford continued. “You forget the message of the free speech, the right things that are there, because of the rioting. In that case, it’s two different groups. In this case, he had a good messaging that was really clear that got drowned out by a photo op event that distracted.”
Others, including Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) used words like “photo op” and “political prop” to describe what Trump did on Monday. Meanwhile, other usually stalwart allies didn’t do much to defend him, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) saying he didn’t know what the president was trying to accomplish.
The smattering of criticism for Trump’s Monday night display was reflective of the GOP’s delicate spot at the moment: amid national outrage over deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, many Republican lawmakers are offering words of support for protest and racial healing, and pushing for cooler heads to prevail. But hardly any could offer an explanation for how the leader of the country, and their party, was possibly dialing down the temperature of a nation in turmoil.
“I don’t think anybody’s been successful in de-escalating tensions, any political leader,” said Graham. “I believe we could all do better.”
To be sure, these Republicans had a low bar of criticism to clear, especially set against the scorching tenor of statements from Democrats—like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who called Trump’s conduct “fascist”—as well as the criticism from some figures in the Republican Party and from a pastor at St. John’s Church who was gassed on Monday night.
The roster of those Republicans who spoke out was somewhat revealing, however. Sasse, for example, refused to vote for Trump in 2016 but has since ventured hardly more than a few ill words for the president as early Trump critics like former Sen. Jeff Flake were practically run out of office for their views.
“There is no right to riot,” read a statement from Sasse on Tuesday. “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."
That statement earned the Nebraska senator, a devout Christian, a heaping of online hate from Trump’s defenders—as well as derision from liberals who’ve taken to rolling their eyes at GOP senators who offer admonitions of the president but did not, for example, vote to impeach him.
Two regular focuses of that frustration —Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—also condemned Trump’s move Monday in relatively strong terms.
“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the President to go across the street to a church I believe he’s attended only once,” said Collins. Meanwhile, Murkowski said she does “believe that that the tone coming from the president right now is helping” and declined to tell a reporter if she’d vote for Trump in November.
Oddly, among the many GOP senators who did not want to touch the subject was the most reliable critic of the president among them: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. As he shuttled about the Capitol on Tuesday, Romney—the only Republican who voted to impeach the president, citing the obligations of his faith—brushed off questions at several points about Trump’s church photo-op and the treatment of protesters.
Around noon, Romney told The Daily Beast that he had seen some of the footage of protests but said he had nothing to say. “I don’t have anything to add on that,” he said. Walking by a bank of cameras and reporters a few hours later, Romney said he didn’t see it closely enough to venture an opinion.