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I Followed Trump To St. John's, And When The Smoke Cleared, There Was A Huge Story

A BuzzFeed News reporter followed Trump's path to a church and to controversy. The truth was in the sounds and in the air.

Posted on June 2, 2020, at 5:20 p.m. ET

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

President Donald Trump walks back to the White House from St John's Episcopal Church.

WASHINGTON — The chants of “Black Lives Matter” from Lafayette Square grew louder as we approached the scheduled time for President Donald Trump to speak.

I knew those sounds from my weekend coverage of the protests, but hearing them from the opposite side, on the manicured grass of the White House’s North Lawn, was different.

Then the chants were replaced with loud booming sounds, the kind you might hear during wartime. As a pool reporter for the White House press corps — among a small group of journalists who would then share what happened with other news organizations — I was keenly aware of the need to keep track of all details. I took note of the empty podium, the flower beds, the pillars, and four American flags.

But I couldn’t keep count of all the booms. Nor did I understand how they would echo in unexpected ways across the country.

The president was supposed to make an announcement at 6:15 p.m., but he was late and so we waited. When he emerged from his office, the booms still could be heard.

“All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd,” Trump said during his brief remarks. The blasts continued.

When it was over, he walked off without taking questions. My phone battery was dying.

Members of the press were told to meet on the North Lawn. I had an inkling about where we were going based on the president’s last remarks at the press conference: “And now I’m going to pay my respects to a very, very special place.”

Gathered behind a tree, we could see the president leaving the White House. I dashed along the North Lawn with a small cluster of reporters to see what would happen next.

As we followed the president’s route, we began to realize what had happened earlier.

The remnants of whatever was still in the air left me and some reporters coughing and teary-eyed. (Soon it would be reported that smoke from canisters and pepper balls had, in effect, paved the way for Trump's walk.) The president and his entourage marched on through Lafayette Square, past the graffiti, reporters keeping a distance of 15 to 30 feet away.

And then we arrived at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where every president since James Madison has attended service. It was boarded up after being vandalized the night before.

The street was empty with no traces of protesters except the litter they had left behind. In front of the church, Trump held up a Bible for the camera. He didn’t read from it. Didn’t say it was his or where it came from. And, at that moment, I realized my job was to cover a photo shoot.

It was over in about five minutes, and soon we were back on our way to the White House. My phone, thankfully, was still working. Good thing. I sent an urgent text to my editor.

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