Trump and Aides Try to Change the Narrative of the White House Protests

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WASHINGTON — President Trump and his aides spent much of Wednesday trying to rewrite history, claiming that Mr. Trump was merely “inspecting” a bunker last week during riots over the death of George Floyd and insisting falsely that peaceful protesters near the White House were attacking the police when the authorities used chemical agents to make them move so that Mr. Trump could have his picture taken at a nearby church.

Mr. Trump has been under fire from religious and political leaders since federal agents abruptly used smoke, flash grenades and chemical spray to disperse protesters and clergy members gathered peacefully Monday afternoon so that the president and his aides could stage a brief photo op in front of a historic church.

On Wednesday, Kayleigh McEnany, the president’s press secretary, claimed that many of the hundreds of people gathered on H Street a block from the White House were throwing bricks and other objects at police officers, who moved in, she said, because they were afraid for their own safety.

“There were projectiles being thrown at officers,” she told reporters. “Frozen water bottles were being thrown at officers. Various other projectiles. And the officers had no other choice than, in that moment, to act and make sure that they were safe.”

In fact, witness reports from religious leaders, activists, bystanders and journalists from multiple news organizations documented no such activity in the hours before a concerted effort was made to move the protesters away from St. John’s Church.

Ms. McEnany also claimed that officials warned the protesters to move “three times over loudspeaker,” though multiple people who were there said they heard no warning.

She also repeatedly insisted that “tear gas” was not used to disperse the crowd despite clear evidence from the scene that many of the protesters were sprayed with a harsh chemical irritant. And she cited the fact that St. John’s, where Mr. Trump posed for the cameras, “was burning” the night before.

In fact, there was a relatively small fire in the basement that was quickly extinguished.

Mr. Trump echoed the comments of his press secretary later throughout the day during two separate interviews with sympathetic listeners. During an interview filmed early Wednesday with Sean Spicer, his former press secretary, who now hosts a political program on Newsmax TV, the president said the authorities moved protesters out of the way because “they tried to burn down the church the day before and almost succeeded.”

“The church was badly hurt,” Mr. Trump said, a sentiment that he repeated on Twitter in sharing a post that quoted Senator Ted Cruz falsely claiming that the church “was firebombed by terrorists.”

The president added that “Democrat and superliberal mayors” were to blame for failing to confront violence and looting touched off by the death of Mr. Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis whose neck was pinned under the knee of a white police officer.

He had less to say on police brutality and racism, two underlying problems protesters say they are trying to address through their demonstrations. When Mr. Spicer asked Mr. Trump to address the issues of police reform and systemic racism, the president instead asked why Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger, had not solved the problems during his career in politics.

“Why didn’t he do something about it?” Mr. Trump said. “I’ve only been here for three and a half years.”

Mr. Trump was given another chance to address the deaths of black people in police custody during an interview earlier Wednesday with Brian Kilmeade of Fox News Radio. He again blamed Mr. Biden and said law enforcement officers “have to get better than what they’ve been doing.”

In that interview, Mr. Trump initially denied, and then acknowledged, that he had gone to a secure bunker as protesters demonstrated nearby. But the president said he went there for an “inspection,” not because of concerns over his safety.

“Well, it was a false report,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Kilmeade, who had asked if he had been brought to the bunker along with his family as was reported by The New York Times and other news media organizations.

Then Mr. Trump reversed himself and said he had gone to the bunker. But he did not say when he went there or with whom. “I wasn’t down — I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection,” the president said. “There was no problem during the day.”

Mr. Trump added that he had been there “two, two and a half” times before because he had “done different things” related to inspecting the bunker.

The president’s account was contradicted by a person with firsthand knowledge who told The Times in an article published Sunday that on Friday night, Secret Service agents nervous for his safety abruptly rushed him to a bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks.

A second official familiar with the events said the agents acted after the White House’s security status was changed to “red” when protesters breached a set of temporary fences that had been erected around the Treasury Department alongside the White House grounds. (At least four protesters were detained by the Secret Service and charged with unlawful entry, The Washington Post reported.)

The change in status indicated a heightened threat to those inside the White House, although officials said the president was never really in danger. Officials said he and his family were rattled by the sometimes violent protests near the White House.

It was Mr. Trump’s concern over the perception that he was hiding during those protests at the end of last week that prompted him on Monday to tell his staff that he wanted to take some kind of action to address that impression.

After a discussion over whether to send the military into American cities, he decided instead to walk across Lafayette Square to St. John’s, but not before law enforcement officers used riot-control tactics, including pepper spray and other chemical irritants, to disperse the demonstrators in his path.

In the Fox News interview, Mr. Trump suggested that religious leaders who criticized his visit to the church were members of the “opposition party” and said that the evangelist Franklin Graham and “many other people” had loved the visit.

When Mr. Kilmeade asked why the president was focusing on things like fighting with the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough when so much turmoil was unfolding across the country, Mr. Trump again falsely claimed that Mr. Scarborough, a former congressman, was connected to the death in 2001 of Lori Klausutis, a young woman who worked for him.

Mr. Trump said he “strongly felt” that Mr. Scarborough “got away with murder.” But a coroner determined that Ms. Klausutis’s death was an accident that happened when she fainted from an undiagnosed heart condition and died after hitting her head. The widower of Ms. Klausutis has pleaded that Mr. Trump stop using his wife’s death to attack Mr. Scarborough.

He also dismissed recent polling showing Mr. Biden with as much as a 10-point lead. “I have other polls where I’m winning,” Mr. Trump said, though he did not cite one. There are no public polls showing him beating Mr. Biden in the general election; a handful show the president statistically tied with Mr. Biden in some battleground states. Mr. Trump then bragged about his victory in the 2016 election.