Trump claims he was in bunker for a ‘tiny' period of time to inspect it

Martin Pengelly in New York
Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump has claimed to have spent only a “tiny” amount of time in a reinforced security bunker under the White House as protesters clashed with Secret Service agents outside and has insisted his time there was for an “inspection”, not his own safety.

Related: 'He wears the armor of God': evangelicals hail Trump's church photo op

In an interview with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade on his radio show on Wednesday, Trump also claimed to have visited the bunker in the daytime, not after dark, when protesters and law enforcement officers clashed outside the executive mansion.

The New York Times first reported that Trump was taken to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center on Friday night, for about an hour. Other outlets, citing White House sources, confirmed it.

The protected space under the White House was used by Vice-President Dick Cheney on 11 September 2001, when authorities feared a plane might strike the building. It has since been reinforced.

Trump told Kilmeade: “I was there for a tiny, short little period of time” and said he had visited the bunker “two or three times, all for inspection”.

“And you go there, someday you may need it, but you go there, I went down, I looked at it, it was during the day, it was not a problem. And I read about it like a big thing. There was never a problem, nobody ever came close to giving us a problem.”

It wasn’t during the night. I think they reported during the night. During the night, maybe some day it makes sense

Donald Trump

Trump earned rebukes on Saturday by tweeting that had protesters breached the White House fence, they would have been met by “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons”.

The protests in Washington and cities across the country, the worst civil unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, arose from the killing in Minneapolis last week of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

“After we had the one evening which was a little rough,” Trump told Kilmeade, “we brought in the troops”.

In a call on Monday which was leaked to outlets including the Guardian, Trump harangued governors about the need to “dominate” protesters, and demanded they call in the national guard. Guardsmen and federal officers have been deployed in Washington. On Tuesday, combat soldiers of the regular US army were moved within reach of the capital.

Kilmeade asked Trump if, as was reported, the Secret Service had told him he had to “go downstairs” in order to protect his welfare.

“No, they didn’t tell me that at all,” the president said, “but they said it would be a good time to go down, to take a look, because maybe some time you’re going to need it … I looked, I was down for a very, very short period of time … a whole group of people went with me, as an inspecting factor.”

It was reported at the weekend that the first lady, Melania Trump, and the president’s son Barron Trump also went to the bunker.

“And Brian it was during the day,” Trump insisted, “it wasn’t during the night. I think they reported during the night. During the night, maybe some day it makes sense.”

On Monday evening, Trump gave a speech in the White House Rose Garden, promising “law and order” but also expressing sympathy with peaceful protesters.

At the same time, the attorney general, William Barr, ordered the forcible clearance of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square and the area around St John’s church, in front of the White House, so Trump could walk to the church for a photo op with a Bible.

Extensive reporting citing administration officials said Trump wanted to make the walk – and therefore precipitated the assault with rubber bullets and chemical agents on peaceful protesters including priests, a hugely controversial move – to counter the perception he had hidden in the bunker on Friday.

The decision to use the historic “Church of the Presidents” for such a photo op attracted widespread criticism, including from religious leaders. Some Trump supporters expressed approval.

Trump insisted: “Most religious leaders loved it. I heard [evangelical leader] Franklin Graham this morning thought it was great, I heard many other people think it was great … it was only the other side that didn’t like it.”

Related: A photo op as protests swirled: how Trump came to walk to the church

Trump falsely claimed protesters “burned down the church the day before. I heard how nice and wonderful the protesters were over there. Really? Then why did they burn down a big section of it?”

In a letter to parishioners, the Rev Robert Fisher, rector of the church, said: “There was a small fire in the parish house basement. Thankfully, it appears to have been contained to the nursery – though, as you might imagine there is smoke and water damage to other areas of the basement.”

The church was boarded up when Trump arrived.

“We walked over to the church it was very fast, it was very symbolic,” the president told Kilmeade, adding: “The fake news makes everything bad no matter what you do.”