White House adviser Hope Hicks was behind President Donald Trump's church photo-op on Monday, where peaceful protesters were dispersed with tear gas, according to The New York Times.
Trump, who was reportedly "embarrassed" and "upset" by news reports that he had hunkered down in the White House bunker as protests over police violence raged outside, walked over to St. John's Church on Monday to hold up a bible for cameras. Police backed by the National Guard unleashed tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang shells on peaceful protesters to clear the path for the president before the city's curfew went into place.
Hicks "hatched" the plan with others at the White House to have Trump walk over to the church, which had been damaged by fires set by protesters, according to The Times.
Attorney General William Barr personally ordered law enforcement officials to clear the park of protesters, a Justice Department official told The Washington Post.
Hicks, who served as Trump's closest campaign aide and later as White House communications director before a stint as a public relations executive at Fox, recently returned to work at the White House under Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The stunt came after Hicks "scolded" the president over his tweet saying, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," according to Axios.
Monday's photo-op did little to ease frustration over the president's response, though Trump's aides reportedly celebrated the incident.
"I've never been more ashamed," one senior White House official told Axios. "I'm really honestly disgusted. I'm sick to my stomach, and they're all celebrating it. They're very very proud of themselves."
Washington Episcopalian Bishop Mariann Budde, who oversees the church, said she was "deeply disappointed that [Trump] didn't come to church to pray, he didn't come to church to offer condolences to those who were grieving, he didn't come to commit to healing our nation — all the things that we would expect and long for from the highest leader in the land."
"Consider the context," Budde told NBC News. "After making a highly charged, emotional speech to the nation where he threatened military force, his officials cleared peaceful protests with tear gas and horses and walked on to the courtyard of St. John's Church and held up a Bible as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position, and stood in front of our building as if it were a backdrop for his agenda."
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser called the stunt "shameful."
"I imposed a curfew at 7pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & [without] provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult," she tweeted.
Arlington police were ordered to "immediately leave DC" after the stunt because the "mutual aid agreement" with local authorities had been "abused to endanger their and others' safety for a photo-op," County County Board Member Libby Garvey said
Democratic leaders condemned Monday's actions, criticizing Trump for "fanning of the flames of discord, bigotry and violence" and calling the church stunt "cowardly, weak and dangerous."
"When peaceful protesters dispersed in order for a president — a president — from the doorstep of the people's house — the White House — using tear gas and flash grenades, in order to stage a photo op — a photo op — at one of the most historic churches in the country, or at least Washington, D.C., we can be forgiven for believing that the president is more interested in power than in principle," presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden said Tuesday. "I won't traffic in fear and division. I won't fan the flames of hate. I'll seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain."