Updated at 9:15 p.m. ET
President Trump defended what he called a "very symbolic" photo-op on Monday in front of St. John's Church and dismissed a suggestion that he needed to do more to comfort the nation after the death of George Floyd, saying that cracking down on violent protests was paramount.
The nation has been gripped by protests — some violent — since Floyd, a black man, died in police custody on May 25 death in Minneapolis. A white police officer faces second-degree murder charges after a video emerged showing him pinning Floyd's neck to the ground with his knee.
Trump's response to protest has itself become a flash point since Monday, when he made a Rose Garden speech threatening to send the military into cities to quell unrest before walking across the street to hold up a bible in front of the boarded-up church. A fire had been set in the church's basement during protests on Sunday night.
In two interviews on Wednesday, Trump defended his actions.
"Right now, I think the nation needs law and order," Trump said in an interview with Newsmax TV, a conservative broadcast outlet. "We need healing and all of those things, but we need safety in our cities."
James Mattis, Trump's former defense secretary, issued a rare rebuke of what he called "the abuse of executive authority." The retired Marine general said it was a "bizarre photo op" and said the military had been used "to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens" in a statement published in The Atlantic.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Mattis' statement "a self-promotional stunt" on Twitter.
Former Secretary Mattis’ “article” is little more than a self-promotional stunt to appease the DC elite.— Kayleigh McEnany (@PressSec) June 4, 2020
President @realDonaldTrump is the law and order President that has restored peace to our nation’s streets.
Mattis’ small words pale in comparison to @POTUS’ strong action.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who oversees the church, said Trump used "violent means" to clear the area and did not pray at the church or offer "balm or condolence to those who are grieving" and protesting the death of George Floyd.
Trump said critics were being partisan, noting evangelical supporters like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress had praised his photo op.
"Most religious leaders loved it," Trump said in an interview on Fox News Radio. "It's only the other side that didn't like it."
McEnany compared Trump's walk across Lafayette Park to the church to other iconic moments in political history. "Like Churchill, we saw him inspecting the bombing damage. It sent a powerful message of leadership to the British people. And George W. Bush, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch after 9/11," McEnany told reporters at a briefing.
"It was powerful and important to send a message that the rioters, the looters, the anarchists, they will not prevail — that burning churches are not what America is about."
Policy responses unclear
The White House has had few details about whether it will pursue any policy changes to address longstanding concerns about police brutality against African Americans. Trump received an endorsement from the largest police organization during his 2016 run for office and often speaks in support of police.
In his Fox News interview on Wednesday, Trump said that "we have to get the police departments to do better," but he did not offer specifics.
A senior aide to Trump who works on criminal justice and economic issues told NPR that the White House aims to build on its track record of boosting funding to historically black colleges, support for charter schools and private school vouchers, and lowering prison sentences for some drug offenses.
"President Trump and his White House continue to engage with African American leaders across America on issues ranging from improving police-community relations to empowering minorities for economic development," said Ja'Ron Smith, deputy director of the White House Office of American Innovation.
The White House is looking at "tools that we could use to ensure that law enforcement uses the appropriate level of force," McEnany told reporters. But she emphasized that Trump believes "our police officers are valiant heroes."
She displayed a photo of retired St. Louis police Capt. David Dorn, who was killed Tuesday morning during looting in his city, and she recounted a list of other police officers injured on the job during violent protests.
McEnany claimed that police officers had found "cachets of glass bottles, baseball bats and metal poles hidden along the streets," and later the White House Twitter account posted a minute-long compilation of cellphone video that showed piles of bricks and people throwing rocks, describing it as "acts of domestic terror."
The source of the cellphone footage was not clear, though one part appeared to show a security barrier outside of a Jewish community facility in Southern California, implying it was a stash of rocks used by protesters. The tweet was later deleted.
Trump took credit for the National Guard calming protests in Minneapolis and Washington. "Once they came in, it was like a knife cutting butter. It was so easy," he told Newsmax.
He repeated his threat that he would invoke the Insurrection Act to bring in military forces to address violent protests if states refused to use the National Guard to help quell rioting. "If they don't get their act straightened out, I will fix it," he said in his Fox News Radio interview.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper made remarks on Wednesday, saying he did not support invoking the act and calling it "a matter of last resort." McEnany declined to comment on those remarks. Asked whether Trump retains confidence in Esper, she said: "As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith we will all learn about that in the future."
Trump also confirmed in his Fox News Radio interview that he spent time last weekend in the Presidential Emergency Operations Center — a bunker underneath the White House. But he denied reports that the Secret Service rushed him to the bunker due to concerns about his safety during the protests.
He said he had visited the center for a "very short period of time" during daytime hours "more for an inspection," but he said the Secret Service did not tell him to shelter in the bunker.