Donald Trump has toured a Catholic shrine in his second straight religious-themed appearance as the nation grappled with widespread unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Critics said the president was misusing religious symbols for partisan purposes, but the White House said Mr Trump and first lady Melania Trump were observing a “moment of remembrance”, laying a wreath in a quiet visit to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington DC.
The visit came a day after Mr Trump declared himself the “president of law and order” and then walked to St John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House after Lafayette Park was forcibly cleared of protesters.
He held up a Bible for photos in front of the church, known as the Church of the Presidents, which had been damaged by fire during weekend protests.
On Tuesday’s drive to the shrine, Mr Trump’s motorcade sped past onlookers, some of whom booed, held “Black Lives Matter” signs or made obscene gestures.
On Monday evening, he had appeared in the White House Rose Garden and threatened to deploy the military across the country to quell sometimes-violent unrest sparked by Mr Floyd’s death.
Mr Trump made his declaration to the sound of tear gas clearing largely peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park.
On Tuesday, Washington Archbishop Wilton D Gregory said he was “baffled” by Mr Trump’s visit to the shrine and called it “reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we might disagree”.
Mr Gregory said the late pope was an “ardent defender” of human rights, adding: “He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate them for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship.”
The president vowed to deploy the US military to America’s own cities to quell a rise of violent protests, including ransacking stores and burning police cars.
He offered little recognition of the anger coursing through the country as he demanded a harsher crackdown on the mayhem that has erupted.
Mr Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him down and pressed his neck with his knee as the man pleaded that he could not breathe.
On Tuesday, the state of Minnesota filed a human rights complaint against Minneapolis Police Department in the death of Mr Floyd.
Violent demonstrations have raged in scores of American cities, marking a level of unrest unseen for decades.
The church stop and Rose Garden speech followed a video teleconference Mr Trump held on Monday morning with governors, during which he derided them as ineffective in dealing with protests.
“Most of you are weak,” he said. “It’s like a war. And we will end it fast. Be tough.”
Arlington County, Virginia, pulled its officers out of the District of Columbia on Monday night after they played a supporting role in forcibly clearing protesters from Lafayette Park.
The County Board issued a statement saying its officers were used “for a purpose not worthy of our mutual aid obligations”.
Chairwoman Libby Garvey said she was “appalled” that the mutual aid agreement was abused “for a photo op”.
Some state governors are also rejecting Mr Trump’s request to send National Guard troops to Washington DC for a massive militarised show of force in the nation’s capital.
At least three states — New York, Virginia and Delaware — have so far rejected the request, with at least one governor citing Mr Trump’s rhetoric about using troops to “dominate” protesters as a reason why. All of those states are led by Democrats. Several other states are sending troops to Washington.
On Tuesday, a Republican senator spoke out Mr Trump’s use of the Bible “as a political prop”.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police. But there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of god as a political prop,” Nebraska senator Ben Sasse said.
Mr Sasse said public officials nationwide “should be lowering the temperature” over the protests.