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The two very different ends of Pennsylvania Avenue

Calm on Capitol Hill compared to chaotic response at the White House

Philomena Wannenge holds up a fist as she and more than a thousand demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd outside of the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
Philomena Wannenge holds up a fist as she and more than a thousand demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd outside of the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The contrast between how the George Floyd protests unfolded at the White House and on Capitol Hill could hardly be greater, with Congress’ relatively calm reaction to protesters and its own legislative business a vivid rejoinder to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Chaos on Monday at Lafayette Square was replaced with a chaotic executive branch openly feuding with itself on Wednesday.

As demonstrators began to march down Pennsylvania Avenue from Freedom Plaza to Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber with remarks that acknowledged the protests and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but largely came from the Kentucky Republican’s rhetorical quiver.

“This week, in cities across America, the pain of racial injustice has been compounded by violent riots that have drowned out peaceful protests and hurt innocent people,” he said, before discussing the economic fallout and “all of the important business we would have needed to address even before the pandemic.”

Outside, Capitol Police lined up against temporary barricades that extended across most of the East and West fronts of the Capitol itself, as a crowd of roughly 1,000 protesters converged on the Hill, chanting, “No justice, no peace.” They held up signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Lawyers Against Police Brutality,” among others. Some Capitol Police officers responded by taking a knee, a sign of respect to the protesters and their message of racial justice.

More than a thousand demonstrators lay on the ground in solidarity to demonstrate the last moments of George Floyd, outside the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

By mid-afternoon, much of the crowd had left, although a small contingent stayed on, chanting amid the joggers, cyclists and dog walkers on the grounds.

Much bigger protest crowds have converged on the Capitol in recent years, rallying against everything from gun violence to Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. And the barricades were not extended as far as they normally are for events like the State of the Union.

Although House lawmakers were not physically present, several virtual hearings were underway, as were the virtual hearings that are beginning to define the new normal in the Senate.

On the floor, senators quibbled over but ultimately approved by voice vote a measure to change the Paycheck Protection Program. They also voted on a few nominations for good measure, confirming Drew B. Tipton to be a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of Texas and James H. Anderson to be a deputy undersecretary of Defense.

Some members, notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, even found time to go out and speak to the protesters outside the Capitol.

Executive back-and-forth

Meanwhile, on the executive branch side of things, the White House found itself on defense after Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he did not think it was the right time to use the Insurrection Act of 1807 to suppress dissent. Esper’s comment was a rebuke of President Donald Trump, who threatened to use the 19th-century law on Monday right before law enforcement broke up a peaceful protest outside the White House.

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations,” Esper said. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

The White House pushed back later in the afternoon.

“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,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters.

“The president has the sole authority to invoke the Insurrection Act,” she added. “It is definitely a tool within his power.”

That back-and-forth was just the backdrop to an open question about just which law enforcement agencies were involved in Monday’s brutal crackdown at Lafayette Square (Secret Service, Park Police, National Guard, MPs?), what was used against protesters (with the president asserting no tear gas was used, despite evidence and witness to the contrary) and confusion about which military and law enforcement entities and equipment were deployed and where and for what purpose in the D.C. region.

The president has authority over the District of Columbia National Guard and can deploy it in the District without consulting the mayor or D.C. officials. But there were conflicting reports over active duty military units and their positions in the D.C. region.

Trump began what would be a momentous Wednesday in a Fox News Radio interview with Brian Kilmeade. He discussed the protests, giving himself high marks for restoring what he said was calm after Monday night’s events. But he made sure to hit several of his favorite topics, among them shots at his presumptive fall opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and forever foil Joe Scarborough, repeating a debunked conspiracy theory that the MSNBC host and former Florida congressman murdered his intern.

“People hit me. I hit back. I fight. I’ve always felt that about Scarborough — I had a lot of people in Florida felt he got away with murder — I think. So I’ve always felt that — that’s not an uncommon story — maybe you’ll look at it. So we don’t have to waste time on it, but I’ve always felt that he got away with murder. That was my feeling — a very strong feeling, and I do feel it.”

And that was before Esper started talking.

Jacob Metz and John M. Donnelly contributed to this report.

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