As protests and riots against the killing of George Floyd entered their second week in Washington, D.C., at the end of May, the main media story wasn’t focused on the unrest itself, but rather where President Donald Trump was supposedly riding it out.
Trump’s critics in the media and among Democrats claimed he spent at least one night in the White House bunker out of fear of the unrest outside. The weekend of the 29-31 saw a drastic escalation in violence, with at least 60 Secret Service officers sustaining injuries. While it is clear Trump spent some amount of time in the White House bunker on May 29, reports differ as to when he arrived, how long he spent inside, and why he went there at all.
Some outlets argued the president “fled,” “took shelter,” or “hid” in the bunker that evening, as protests and riots raged outside the White House. The language implied he made the decision on his own out of fear of the protests. The reports, citing anonymous administration and law enforcement officials, said Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, all spent just under one hour in the bunker.
Law enforcement had erected expansive fencing around the White House in preparation for the unrest, boxing in not only the White House but also some of the outside perimeter.
Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Minority Leader Chuck Schumer mocked Trump, arguing he had turned the White House into “a place behind which the leader of our Executive Branch cowers in fear.”
Trump’s critics on Twitter also seized on the narrative that he had chosen to flee to the bunker, prompting “#BunkerBoy” to spread on the social platform.
Turning off the lights and hiding in the basement works when you want to ignore Trick or Treaters. It’s not going to work now. #protests2020 #BlackLivesMatter #GeorgeFloyd #BunkerBoy #GeorgeFloyd https://t.co/v6ATlkXxak
— Mark Critch (@markcritch) June 1, 2020
Today when Trump went low, he went into his bunker. #BunkerBoy is a coward.
— ken olin (@kenolin1) June 1, 2020
Other outlets took a less aggressive approach, stating that the Secret Service made the decision to move Trump to the bunker as a precaution due to escalating violence outside. Crowds outside the White House were breaking through barriers until they were stopped by the Secret Service throughout Friday night, leading law enforcement to declare a lockdown for the White House complex. It is during this lockdown that reports say Trump entered the bunker.
The lockdown took place between 7:25 and 8:25 p.m., roughly the same amount of time Trump was said to have spent in the bunker.
The White House is under lockdown orders from the U.S. Secret Service due to protests outside the gates over George Floyd.
A dozen reporters, myself included, still inside the West Wing.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) May 29, 2020
White House lockdown lifted. Heading out. pic.twitter.com/7lO32ZOxx9
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) May 30, 2020
A “person with firsthand knowledge” reportedly told The New York Times that “Secret Service agents nervous for [Trump’s] safety abruptly rushed him to a bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks.”
While Trump acknowledged entering the bunker days later, he argued it was under totally different circumstances. He claimed instead that he had chosen to visit the bunker briefly for an “inspection” during the day.
“It was a false report. I wasn’t down. I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny, little, short period of time,” Trump told Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade later that week. “And it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day,” (RELATED: Trump Claims He Went To White House Bunker During Protests For ‘Inspection’)
“They said it would be a good time to go down and take a look because maybe sometime you’re going to need it,” Trump continued. “I looked at it. It was during the day. It was not a problem … There was never a problem.”
News reports continued to highlight the contradiction between Trump and the unnamed sources who said Trump’s security detail had rushed he and his family into the bunker Friday evening. It has already been confirmed that the White House entered a general lockdown that night due to escalating violence outside the perimeter fences.
Things remained up in the air until Attorney General Bill Barr confirmed that the Secret Service had “recommended” Trump enter the bunker on May 29. He did not technically confirm Trump had actually entered the bunker, however.
“Things were so bad that the Secret Service recommended that the President go down to the bunker,” Barr told Fox News on Jun 8. “We can’t have that in our country.”
Barr went on to add that the incident led law enforcement to expand the security perimeter around the White House as the unrest continued.
Days later, Trump ordered a show-of-force trip to the nearby St. John’s Church — roughly a block from the White House. The path went straight through protesters, and controversy surrounding how law enforcement went about removing the demonstrators soon overshadowed the bunker debate.