An oral history of 48 surreal, violent, biblical minutes in Washington

On Monday evening, over the course of 48 minutes, Donald Trump put on a show that may have changed America, yet again. It involved an overture to the nation, a physical attack on Americans and a Bible. It began suddenly, in the Rose Garden, with a statement about “law and order” and “dangerous thugs.” The president promised justice for the family of George Floyd, whose death in the custody of Minneapolis police last week triggered nationwide protests, looting and violence, and a roiling debate about who we are and what we hope to become.

As the president declared that he was an "ally" of peaceful protesters, those peaceful protesters were violently dispersed to make way for his walk to St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square in the District of Columbia. "Our greatest days lie ahead," Trump said. What happened during those 48 minutes convinced some people that he is right, and others that he is very wrong.

Eventually there will be a detailed accounting of what actually happened, and how, and why. For now, in the midst of the confusion, here is a first draft of history in miniature, in minutes - an oral history of 6:30 to 7:18 p.m. on June 1, 2020.

• • •

KADIA GOBA, reporter for BuzzFeed News: As the print pooler for the day, I basically chronicle everything the president is doing, every time I see him in the White House for the entire day. We get an update of the president’s schedule the evening before. I anticipated it was going to be a slow day.

THE REV. ROBERT FISHER, rector of St. John’s: As the protests were growing in Lafayette Square, our plan was to be a supportive ministerial presence. We were there offering refreshments, and just being with other people. It was really positive. It felt like we were doing the right thing.

SHEENA WILLS, protester and bartender from the District: It was peaceful, and everything was fine.

JAMES MATTOCKS, protester and artist from Maryland: I set up my easel right in front of the White House and started painting right in front of the line of police.


SARAH ROSNER, protester and bartender from the District: There were so many snacks, and so much love. Everyone was so caring.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): Around 4:30, I understood they were setting up the Rose Garden - which usually means there’s going to be a press conference.

TOM NICHOLS, professor, political analyst and self-described Never Trump conservative: I was actually in the living room with my wife; we have a television mounted over our fireplace. I was watching the news and suddenly it flashed that the president was going to speak in the Rose Garden at 6:15. And I thought, “This can’t be good.”

GOBA (BuzzFeed): While we were waiting in the Rose Garden, there were loud booms that echoed over and over.

In Lafayette Square, around 6:30 p.m., officers from the U.S. Park Police, Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies began maneuvers.

WILLS (protester): Some of the protesters who were standing on top of the bathroom building in the park started moving around, getting down. That’s been a sign the last couple of days that something’s happening: They have better visuals of what’s going on that we can’t see.

KAITLAN COLLINS, White House correspondent for CNN: We’d been broadcasting live from the roof of a hotel across the street from St. John’s. We’ve been watching these protesters all day. The police had been standing far back, but around 6:30 we saw officers move in from around the barricade.

AMELIA BRACE, Seven News (Australia): They blocked the road, similar to what they’d done before the 11 p.m. curfew the night before. So we thought, “Oh, they’re just getting ready for (the 7 p.m.) curfew.”

WILLS (protester): I noticed that the military police were doubling their line. There was a second line forming with shields. And I had that in my head, like, OK, what the hell’s going on?

JULIA DOMENICK, seminary student volunteering to support protesters: All of a sudden, the police started rushing us.

WILL URQUHART, protester and webcast producer from the District: I saw the line of cops in front of me take a step back right before the first flash bang. They clearly knew it was coming. It felt like it was planned, like this is exactly what they were going for.

BRACE (journalist): I just kept thinking, it’s too early. We have another half an hour.

WILLS (protester): We looked at the time and it was probably 6:45, 6:50. And we’re all just like, “Why did they start doing this right now?” Like, it’s not even curfew.

JUDD DEERE, White House spokesman (in a statement): The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew. Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.

DOMENICK (seminary student): We had no warning.

YURI LEE, protester from the District: I didn’t hear any warning.

COLLINS (CNN): From where we were on the roof, we could hear the officers say, “This is the first of three warnings. You need to move out of the park.” It was abruptly followed up by a second and third just a few minutes later.


DOMENICK: All of a sudden, they were shooting rubber bullets.

LEE: I had been backed up between 15th and Vermont. In the center part of the street, I started to see tear gas canisters going off. Protesters were running toward me. They had been hit by the gas, and their eyes were streaming.

DOMENICK: The tear gas - your throat burns. Your eyes burn. Your chest burns. Your skin burns. You can’t see. Everything is so blurry and you’re trying to run; you’re just trying to run. The pain is - there are no words. I’ve never experienced anything like it to compare it to.

GREGORY MONAHAN, acting chief of the U.S. Park Police (in a statement): As many of the protesters became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park.

WILLS (protester): I ran over with a group of girls who were trying to help an older black gentleman, probably my mom’s age, who had just gotten sprayed in the face. He was just sitting there in shorts, T-shirt, surgical mask. We were trying to rinse his face. I gave him my T-shirt, to pat his face dry.

BRACE (journalist): I made eye contact with an officer and held out my press pass. I kept screaming, “Media! Media!” And then he barreled into my cameraman. His shield hit my cameraman’s chest, and then the officer punched him. We started to run.

DOMENICK: The flash grenades echoed off buildings. The whole block was shaking with the reverberations of the flash grenades.

BRACE: As we were running, I got hit in the back with a baton. My cameraman and I both got hit by rubber bullets.


RYAN ASTON, protester and bartender from the District: I got kicked. I got punched. I got stepped on.

ROSNER (protester): They pushed us back past the church on 16th street.

BRACE: We finally made it through the crowd and ran around the corner, and stopped to take a breath, but then the police came around that corner, too. Our instinct normally is to run toward police for safety. But this was the opposite; they were the people we feared.

URQUHART (protester): The protesters retreated, and a whole bunch of them formed a line with many of them taking a knee. Then the line of police just charged at us, shooting rubber bullets and firing off flash bangs. I’ve filmed a ton of civil disobedience in D.C. My day job is filming protests and press conferences. I haven’t personally witnessed anything quite as violent as this.

BRACE: My parents watched it all live. There was a period where we first got hit and we were getting knocked around and I was off-camera. They couldn’t see me, they could just hear me screaming.

The drama unfolded after the workday, around dinnertime, and citizens watched it on their phones and televisions.

ADAM PARKHOMENKO, Democratic operative and reserve officer for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District: I was coming back from the grocery store, and was getting in my car when I got a text from a friend telling me I had to turn on CNN right away.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, conservative pundit and TV station owner: My phone kept ringing. Friends in Arizona, my family in South Carolina, executives. When it wasn’t ringing I kept getting texts. People were asking me: “Are we going to be OK?”

PARKHOMENKO: I pulled it up on my phone, as the scene turned from a peaceful protest into total chaos that was completely unprovoked. I knew in that moment from my time in the volunteer service that there was no way it could have been the D.C. police department that started this. This was federal.

CHARLES RAMSEY, former chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District: The U.S. Park Police are in charge of Lafayette Park, and they’re usually very restrained when it comes to dealing with large crowds. I saw everything unfold on television. The protest hadn’t looked like anything violent. Lafayette is a place where there are constantly protests. It’s one of the gathering points.

REV. FISHER (St. John’s rector): Earlier in the day, I’d agreed to do a TV interview on Fox News. I left the church and walked to the interview location by the Capitol, and while I was waiting to go on air, I was sitting in this mini lobby that had a television. I was so confused about the violence. Because what I’d just left was not something that would need to be broken up by tear gas.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CIA director for George W. Bush and Barack Obama: They were very calm, and then the military and the police and the Secret Service came in. I was aghast. I don’t know what happened to America.


NICHOLS (Never Trumper): I could see the police moving up on the protesters and I thought, “He’s going to try to provoke a clash so that he can walk out right in the middle of a dramatic moment. He is literally stage-managing a moment of violence.”

HOGAN GIDLEY, White House deputy press secretary: The president had seen enough. There was looting. There was rioting. There was destruction across our country. Innocent people were being beaten in the streets, businesses were being destroyed and he wanted to give an update to the American people about the federal response from the Rose Garden to let them know this type of behavior, this type of lawlessness, was not going to happen.

At 6:43 p.m. the president enters the Rose Garden and begins speaking, as sounds of violence echo overhead from Lafayette Park. “Our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others,” he said, and “that is why I am taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America.”

GIDLEY: I was on the colonnade by the Rose Garden at the time, watching him deliver the speech. I had been in the Oval with him before. It’s always humbling, reassuring and such a proud moment, when the president of the United States stands up for the American people and pledges the full weight of the federal government will be there to protect you.

JENNA ELLIS, attorney to Trump and legal adviser to his campaign: His language, I thought, was strong and was decisive. I think his tone was perfectly measured to utilize the authority of his office and to do that justifiably.

NICHOLS: He sounded like he was an inch away from wanting to declare martial law.


REP. JOHN YARMUTH, D-Ky.: I was just mortified, appalled. It was just my wife and I watching. I think I said, “Damn, he just declared war on the American people.”

DOMENICK (seminary student), fleeing police in Lafayette Square: Finally, I made it to the Metro with one of my friends. We were still trying to wash out our eyes, with contact solution. But then some people we’d never met saw us and said, we have some milk of magnesia. They gave us a bottle, and it was such profound relief.

GOBA (BuzzFeed), back at the White House: I liken the scene in the Rose Garden to a Civil War movie showing a white Southern woman outside her white-columned home, with the threat of war looming a few miles away. You don’t see the protesters at this point; I’m just hearing it behind the backdrop of a beautifully manicured lawn. The booming doesn’t stop.

The president concludes his remarks at 6:50 p.m. by saying, “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.” The media is hustled to the North Lawn of the White House grounds, but not told what’s happening. At 7:01 p.m., Trump comes out the front door and starts walking down the driveway to the gates.

DOMENICK: Once we got on the train, one of my fellow seminarians, who we’d become separated from, texted to see if we were OK. We said we were, and then they texted again, “You need to see this.”

ELLIS (attorney to Trump): I was actually in the car listening to his speech . . . I ended up pulling over on the side of the road because I had tears in my eyes when he said, “I am now going to pay my respects.” I knew what he meant by that.

WILLS (protester): As I was sitting on the train, I actually opened Facebook, and friends of mine were posting, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he actually walked out,” and I’m like, what are you talking about? And then a friend sent me a link to it. And then everything clicked in my head.

NICHOLS (Never Trumper): They were trying to clear the path to St. John’s.

REV. FISHER: At the TV studio, I was now waiting to do my interview in a room that didn’t have a TV. The only way I could follow what was happening was listening to the news broadcast in my earpiece. I thought - wait, is he going to my church? Is that where he’s going? This can’t be happening.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): The press was jogging to keep up. There’s White House staff, who’s helping navigate the entourage, but then there’s Secret Service giving them direction about where we should be placed. At one point we were to the right of Trump, at one time we were in front of him, at one point we were in back.

GEN. HAYDEN: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs was walking with him and I said, “Oh my God, what is he doing?” The military would not do that. And yet he went and stood with the president. It was unbelievable to me.

NICHOLS (Never Trumper): The night before people were yelling about me saying, “Don’t burn the church. This is exactly what Trump needs for a symbol.” And sure enough there he was, strutting across Lafayette Park.

GIDLEY (deputy press secretary): There is also a sense of gravity and pride and honor in knowing that you are walking behind a president of the United States to look at a historic church that had been vandalized and burned just 24 hours ago - knowing President Trump’s is about to remind the American people how truly magnificent this country is and how we will get through this together.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): The remnants of whatever spray or gas they had out there was definitely impacting us. I was coughing. It smelled like smoke. It was definitely an irritant. Enough to make you choke. A couple members of the press were coughing, as well as cameramen.

MATT SCHLAPP, Trump supporter and chairman of the American Conservative Union: Like everything in the Trump era, I’m sure both sides are supremely confident that this was all really smart or really stupid.

Trump crosses the debris on H Street NW and positions himself outside St. John’s around 7:10 p.m.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): Trump just stood alone for a second. He held up the Bible first in one hand and then in two hands. It was the most surreal occasion that I’ve ever experienced during White House pool.

REV. FISHER: When I saw the Bible, I thought maybe he would say a prayer.

ELLIS (attorney to Trump): For the president to recognize and validate the institution of the church in society against these anarchists and terrorists - who’ve gone after symbols of government and church authority - was an incredible moment in American history.

REV. FISHER: But then I realized it was a photo op.

ROSNER (protester): I come back home and see that I just got my ass kicked so that guy could get a photo op?

MARIANN EDGAR BUDDE, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington: We weren’t warned or told about what was going to happen. I wouldn’t have allowed it if I’d been given the chance to weigh in.

GIDLEY: You know that every president since Madison has attended services there. Abraham Lincoln prayed there. The deep history of our great nation is partially embodied in that one structure. To watch my boss, the president of the United States, walk over there and tell the world America is the greatest country on the planet and we’ll protect you, is very uplifting.

BISHOP BUDDE: I was outraged. My major outrage was the abuse of sacred symbols and sacred texts. There was no acknowledgment of grief, no acknowledgment of wounds. There was no attempt to heal. The Bible calls us to our highest aspirations, and he used it as a prop.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): I can’t tell you who gave him the Bible, but I can tell you on the way back a man I do not recognize was carrying the Bible. Trump was not carrying it on the way there. He was definitely handed the Bible.

ELLIS (attorney to Trump): I was just watching and absorbing the moment, and saw him smile down at the Bible, and look at it. A lot of people said, “Oh, he doesn’t know how to hold it,” but obviously he was showing the cover of the Bible and wanted people to see this symbol of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

REP. YARMUTH: With the head of the Joint Chiefs, and the attorney general, and all those people representing the full legal and military force of the country - you’ve cleared out an area of peaceful protesters and brought in this show of strength, and then tried to bless it with a Bible? To me it was just one of the most outlandish displays I’ve seen.

ELLIS (attorney to Trump): For me, as a constitutional law attorney, as an American and as a Christian - all of those things came together for me in that moment.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL, D-Wash.: Watching that was a different level of shock and horror. Watching horses on their hind legs. And watching not just Donald Trump, but Bill Barr, the top law enforcement officer of the country who has already discarded the Constitution, walking beside him.

GOBA (BuzzFeed): On his way back to the White House, everyone kind of backed off. There was this weird scene where Secret Service still in riot gear were lined along the entrance of the gate and he just walked, by himself, up into the gate. He just walks toward the gate, all alone. Which again was very weird because he was always with a group, but somehow everyone fell back and it was a just a great visual. He stood alone, almost godlike, and just walked to the White House.

BRACE (Australian journalist): What happened really destroyed my understanding of American culture. Until now, the access from the police has been quite good, in that once you made clear you were the media, you felt very safe to do your job. This changed that.

GEN. HAYDEN: I was a military officer for 40 years. And I am sad. Very sad.

MATTOCKS (protester and painter): All my art equipment was damaged. Most of it got lost. It is what it is.

ROSNER (protester): I started walking home, and there were two cop cars in front of the Dirty Martini. . . . I asked for an ice pack. One cop said they didn’t have an ice pack, and another said, “It’s after curfew. You could get arrested for being in the streets.”

WILLS (protester): I went inside, I made some food and I kind of sat on my couch and stared at the wall for like, an hour.

Democratic leaders were incensed by the spectacle in Lafayette Square. The reaction from Republicans was mixed. On Tuesday, Kasie Hunt, a correspondent for NBC, tweeted a series of reactions from senators when she asked them about Trump’s photo op:

SEN. RON JOHNSON, R-Wis.: Didn’t really see it.

SEN. BILL CASSIDY, R-La.: I didn’t follow, I’m sorry.

SEN. PAT ROBERTS, R-Kan.: I don’t have any comment on that.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY, R-Utah: I didn’t watch it closely enough to know.

SEN. MIKE ENZI, R-Wyo.: Sorry, I’m late for lunch.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN, R-Ohio: I’m late for lunch.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI , R-Alaska: Not the America I know.

SEN. BEN SASSE, R-Neb., in a statement: I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, R-Ky., in a Tuesday news conference: Apparently there were few to no injuries, and no one got killed, and there was a minimum amount of looting. That’s a heck of a way to feel like you might have had a good night.

GEN. HAYDEN: I was living in a Communist country for two years, in Bulgaria, during the Cold War. And so I know what happens when somebody uses a little power to abuse people.

NICHOLS: I’ve spent a good part of my life lecturing people in other countries about the superiority of the American system. I’m not comfortable doing that anymore.

ELLIS (attorney to Trump): It was a continuation of what the president has always championed, which is “America First,” and that’s not just campaign slogan and rhetoric. This country and our rule of law and Constitution will be paramount. And he has taken decisive action through every single challenge in his presidency.

REP. YARMUTH: I think the president is insane.

KATIE MULLINS, protester and mental health specialist from the District: I’ve lived in conflict zones, and I’ve been tear-gassed before. But I never felt like I was walled in and given no warning before this militarized parade, essentially, walks down the street firing at you.

BRACE: In Australia, we’ve had 100 covid-related deaths. Here, it’s been more than 100,000. And now, I’ve had so many messages from friends and family saying, “Just get out of there, it’s too dangerous.” Not referring to the protests. Referring to the U.S.

SCHLAPP (American Conservative Union chairman): Among the people in my house, in the end I think everyone came to the same conclusion. The president wanted a photo to go out showing that he was reclaiming the territory. I would say at the moment it was happening it was controversial, but upon reflection, people mostly agreed it was a good thing to do.

GEN. HAYDEN: If Trump serves one term, it’s very, very bad, but I think we can stand it and we can come back sooner or later. Two terms, we’re done. America will not be the same. Period.

Interviews and statements were edited and condensed for clarity.