In a Rose Garden address on Monday evening, President Trump declared himself an "ally of all peaceful protesters" before invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807. Calling on governors to deploy all force available to them to quell the tumultuous protests sweeping the nation over the murder of George Floyd, Trump threatened to unleash the U.S. military against his own citizens.
"I am mobilizing all federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights," the president said. That reference to gun rights was clearly a signal to Trump's conservative base, although the intention behind it was not clear.
If governors don't use all available means to "dominate the streets," Trump said, he would use the military to "quickly solve the problem for them."
Moments before the address, local and military police deployed flash-bangs, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear protesters gathered quietly in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House and the site of historic St. John's Episcopal Church.
"These are not acts of peaceful protests. These are acts of domestic terror," Trump said in prepared remarks, adding that he had mobilized "thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers" to put down the demonstrations against police brutality sweeping the country.
"Our country always wins. That is why I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence," he said, as a CNN split-screen showed protesters retreating from mounted police amid thick clouds of gas.
"The destruction of innocent life, and the spilling of innocent blood, is an offense to humanity and a crime against God," Trump said.
"Now I'm going to pay my respects to a very special place," he concluded.
The president then left the White House grounds for the first time in days, crossing the street on foot with an escort of dozens of heavily armed Secret Service and police officers — and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, clutching a white handbag — for a photo-op at St. John's Episcopal Church, where protesters had sat peacefully 15 minutes earlier. There, the president held aloft a Bible with one hand in front of the boarded-up church, where demonstrators had lit a basement fire the night before.
"Is that your Bible?" a reporter asked.
"It's a Bible," Trump replied.
Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, separated the church and the president.
"I don't want President Trump speaking for St. John's," she said. "I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to enflame violence."
"We so disassociate ourselves from the messages of this president," Budde added. "We hold the teachings of our sacred texts to be so, so grounding to our lives and everything we do, and it is about love of neighbor and sacrificial love and justice."
CNN's Kaitlan Collins reported that White House sources told her Trump decided to make the walk to St. John's because he was embarrassed by news reports that, amid Friday night's White House protests, Secret Service agents had rushed him to a fortified underground bunker used in the past for terrorist attacks.
Several senior administration officials joined Trump in front of the church as the cameras whirred — including a smiling Attorney General Bill Barr, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Legal experts quickly tried to parse the president's threat to deploy the weapons of the U.S. military against his own citizens. The Insurrection Act was last invoked during the 1992 riots following the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.
"The Insurrection Act, 10 USC 252, gives the president very broad powers to use the military to enforce the laws or suppress rebellion," national security law expert Barbara McQuade told Salon in an email.
"The only requirement is that the president 'considers' it 'impracticable' to enforce the laws in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings against 'unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States,'" McQuade said.
"Elections have consequences," she added.
"The president can send in the military to vindicate constitutional rights," Jeffrey Toobin told CNN's Anderson Cooper, adding, "but the president has no intention of doing it, because the governors won't let him do it."
Democratic governors J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan both told CNN they have no intention of complying with Trump's declaration, calling the move on its face an unconstitutional breach of the tenets of federalism.
Additionally, the 213-year-old provision requires a formal declaration, and multiple reports have said that so far Pentagon officials have not received a formal request from the White House.
"For individuals following the #protests the Insurrection Act has not been invoked by President @realDonaldTrump for the moment, according to multiple Defense Department officials I've spoken with today. However, it's still on the table and has been a major topic of discussion," tweeted AP national defense reporter James LaPorta after the president's address.
However, LaPorta said, an official alert was sent in today to the 82nd Airborne Division for the first time, giving its Immediate Response Force the go-ahead to deploy to the Washington, D.C., area.
President Trump long resisted invoking the Defense Production Act to mobilize American industry against the coronavirus pandemic, instead leaning on son-in-law Jared Kushner's private partnership network to secure and distribute scarce lifesaving equipment for healthcare workers and patients.
"Beginning tonight, the Department of Justice has deployed all of its law enforcement components — FBI, ATF, DEA, U.S. Marshals, and BOP — and is closely coordinating with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to maximize federal security presence throughout the District," Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement.
"The Department is working hand-in-hand with the Metropolitan Police Department, the Capitol Police, the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Secret Service, and the D.C. National Guard," she added.