WASHINGTON — As heavily armed police officers advanced on peaceful protesters outside the White House Monday night, President Trump declared recent acts of protest across the country “domestic terror” and vowed to crack down on any future group violence in a brief speech that did not address the issue of racism or police brutality that has fueled the unrest.
“I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters, but in recent days our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa, and others,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.
He criticized “a number of state and local governments” for failing to “take necessary action to safeguard their residents" and “strongly” recommended governors call up the National Guard to quell the protests. If they did not, Trump said, he would deploy the US military to do so.
Trump said he supported peaceful protests and vowed justice for George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minnesota police last Monday set off days of unrest and led to the arrest of one of the police officers involved.
But Trump’s words were paired with images of protesters peacefully chanting Floyd’s name before mounted police and other heavily armed law enforcement officers deployed tear gas to scatter them before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew. As Trump spoke, demonstrators gasped and ran amid the blasts of flash-bang grenades and tear gas that hung in the air, obscuring the Washington Monument behind them.
Some kneeled again, even as they heard more blasts, shouting “hands up, don’t shoot.”
The crackdown on peaceful protesters appeared aimed at projecting strength after Trump had faced criticism for silently holing up in the White House on Sunday after a weekend of protests, including one outside his front door. On Friday night, Trump, who later tweeted threats of “vicious dogs” to those gathered outside, was reportedly sequestered in a bunker on the property.
On Sunday, some demonstrators set fires and smashed windows near the White House, as the exterior lights of the mansion went dark.
Trump has also done little to address the issues of police brutality or racism that demonstrators are protesting. He has responded publicly mostly with acrid tweets denouncing far left “antifa” violence, at one time apparently suggesting protesters be shot. He urged governors in an angry phone call Monday to “dominate” protesters and dole out lengthy prison sentences.
Before his brief speech on Monday, Trump had not made a public appearance since Saturday at the launch of NASA astronauts into space, when he said he had talked to Floyd’s family and expressed "the sorrow of the entire nation for their loss.”
The resulting image was of a president in retreat as the nation burns.
“This is a man whose first response was to go to the bunker,” said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair and the first Black person to hold that position. “It was not to address the nation.”
After his speech, and once peaceful protesters had been forced out with tear gas, Trump gripped a Bible and walked across the street to visit the exterior of St. John’s Church with members of his Cabinet for a photo op. The church’s basement had been set on fire by protesters Sunday night.
This crisis, which has already resulted in thousands of arrests across dozens of cities, strikes at the heart of one of Trump’s campaign promises, raising the stakes for him just months before he faces reelection.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump painted a portrait of a dark and dangerous America — its streets plagued by violence and its factories shuttered. “I alone can fix it,” Trump vowed at the Republican National Convention. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.”
That law and order message was key to his candidacy. “He wasn’t hired to be the consoler-in-chief or the hand-holder-in-chief, people hired him to take bold, decisive action particularly on issues such as law enforcement and law and order,” said Jason Miller, an adviser on Trump’s campaign.
But Trump’s loud calls in recent days for vicious dogs, “shooting” to follow looting, and for governors to make mass arrests have done nothing to bring peace. Over the weekend, he appeared to call for his supporters to show up for a “MAGA Night” outside the White House, which could have led to clashes with the crowd protesting him.
“Donald Trump comes in with the law and order canard like he can miraculously make it stop but he doesn’t have an answer for the underlying question,” Steele said. “Why did that cop put his knee in the neck of a black man for nine minutes and no one did anything to stop it?”
Trump has said little in recent days to address those underlying concerns. Instead, he has seized on narrower issues. He has accused “antifa” — a term that refers to far-left antifascist protesters— of hijacking the protests and instigating violence, vowing to prosecute them as domestic terrorists. On Friday, when protests were picking up around the country, he held a public event to announce he was defunding the World Health Organization.
"To see the president of the United States say that he’s going to send the military into our communities but hadn’t mentioned sending a single dime of support into our communities speaks to where we are in America,” said Keisha Lance-Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, during a virtual forum with former vice president Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, on Monday.
That was one of several events Biden has held in recent days, perhaps seeking to portray himself as more engaged with the crisis than Trump. On Monday morning, he met with pastors and community leaders in his hometown of Wilmington, Del., at which he promised to set up a “police oversight board” in his first 100 days as president.
“The Band-Aid has been ripped off by this pandemic and this president,” Biden said. “Nobody can pretend any longer what this is all about. Nobody can pretend who has been carrying us on their back. It’s been minorities. It’s been Blacks. It’s been Hispanics.”
But Biden was also pressed on his support for the 1994 crime bill, which exacerbated mass incarceration, and he was criticized for suggesting that police should shoot armed criminals in the leg instead of the heart.
If Trump is trying to change the subject or evade demonstrators’ chief concerns, the protesters at the White House on Monday were determined to keep the focus on their uprising, and the city was bracing for more unrest. Drills whirred as workers boarded up banks and sandwich shops within blocks of the White House, while volunteers piled up a mountain of water bottles, snacks, and hand sanitizer in a “mutual aid” station near the barriers guarding the area.
Nearby, historic buildings had been covered with graffiti. “Why do we have to keep telling you that black lives matter?” read a question scrawled on the side of a 19th-century building built to serve as slave quarters, which is now the White House Historical Association.
“What I think of that man is he lives to incite violence against minorities,” said Stephanie Carter, 60, of Bowie, Md., who said Trump’s retreat into the White House seemed symbolic. “He is a coward.”