Sen. Mitt Romney criticizes President Trump for clearing ‘nonviolent’ protesters for a ‘photo op’

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney speaks to Republican representatives at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, Feb. 28, 2020.

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney on Wednesday criticized the Trump administration for clearing a nonviolent protest across from the White House so President Donald Trump could have a photo op at a church that had been vandalized.

The Utah Republican, who has been one of a few Republicans in Congress willing to speak out against Trump, suggested that active duty military soldiers should not be used to quell protests, which should be left to police and National Guard soldiers.

Romney said the “murder of George Floyd shocked and sickened me,” referencing a black man who died in police custody in Minnesota at the hands of a white cop. Floyd’s death has prompted protests, some violent, in major American cities, including Salt Lake City.

“I respect those who have protested, who have demanded that we must address racism and brutality,” Romney said in a statement. “From the news clips I have seen, the protesters across from the White House were orderly and nonviolent. They should not have been removed by force and without warning, particularly when the apparent purpose was to stage a photo op.”

Attorney General William Barr has said he ordered Lafayette Park, which sits across the street from the White House, cleared and federal law enforcement officers used gas canisters and rubber pellets to move peaceful protesters half an hour before a curfew began in the nation's capital.

Minutes later, Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church and held aloft a Bible in front of the boarded up yellow building before returning to the executive mansion.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Wednesday denied that law enforcement took the actions that were clearly visible in coverage of the protest.

“No tear gas was used and no rubber bullets were used,” McEnany said, directly contradicting footage that showed rubber bullets and images of smoke trails.

McEnany called the crowd in the park “rioters,” adding that federal agents “had no other choice than in that moment to act and make sure that they were safe and that the perimeter was pushed back."

Trump's campaign had demanded that news outlets not refer to “tear gas” in their coverage because the Park Police said “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” were the only things used.

The Washington Post noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies pepper spray as tear gas.

Romney, who on Tuesday said he hadn’t seen coverage of the park being cleared, issued a short statement that did not directly address Trump’s potential use of an old and rarely used law to suppress insurrections in the United States, nor did Romney comment on the president’s remarks about using the military against American citizens.

The Utah Republican, though, said managing protests should be the purview of police and National Guard troops if ordered by the governor of a state.

“I have confidence that the state governors are in the best position to determine what resources are needed to preserve the peace, to protect life and property, and to protect the constitutional right of citizens to protest,” Romney said. “I believe that police and National Guard resources are up to the task.”

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, echoed that sentiment in a statement of his own.

“State and local jurisdictions are best equipped to deal with local peaceful protests and demonstrations,” McAdams said. “Governor [Gary] Herbert, the Utah Department of Public Safety and others in Utah law enforcement have the ability and resources to maintain order and stop criminal actions.”

Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart, John Curtis and Rob Bishop did not respond to a request for comment on the president’s support for military action against protesters.