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EDITORIAL

Stand down, Mr. President

Trump didn’t start the fire. But he’s pouring gasoline on the flames.

President Trump walks to St John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. on Monday night after federal law enforcement officers tear-gassed peaceful protestors to clear his path.
President Trump walks to St John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. on Monday night after federal law enforcement officers tear-gassed peaceful protestors to clear his path.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

“Let me say this to the president of the United States on behalf of the police chiefs in this country,” said Art Acevedo, the head of the City of Houston’s police force, on Monday afternoon on CNN after learning that President Trump had called on governors to “dominate” protestors. “Please, if you don’t have something constructive to say, keep your mouth shut.”

Spoiler alert: The president, speaking from the Rose Garden and then in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington Monday night, did not heed Acevedo’s advice.

Instead, he doubled down on his vitriolic rhetoric, urging governors to militarize their response to protests with the National Guard and threatening to send military troops to American cities. In D.C. Monday night, the president put his ostensible power on display, in what amounted to the equivalent of flexing one’s biceps to prove you can successfully storm the beaches at Normandy. Outside the White House, federal law enforcement officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protestors on live television, all so he could pose for a photo with a group of all-white leaders, brandishing a bible as a stage prop. Trump promised, “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property” in the nation’s capitol.

Whether the president will invoke his authority to deploy active military troops to states and cities remains to be seen. It would be horrific if he did, but there are reasons to doubt he will. This is a president who wants credit but not responsibility, a fact that was revealed in his dealings with governors in the pandemic response. For weeks he offered them no help securing COVID-19 tests, ventilators, and protective equipment for health care workers while the federal government even sabotaged some state efforts to address their outbreaks. Out of purported respect for governors, he conceded they had the authority to decide how long to institute social distancing and when to reopen businesses. Meanwhile, he goaded his supporters on Twitter to “liberate” their state capitols.

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It was the quintessential Trumpian strategy: ceding pandemic decision-making to states without sufficient scientific guidance, testing, or operational support but with plenty of press conferences to brag about his administration’s efforts. It was a way of evading direct White House culpability both for the short-term economic impact of keeping in place lockdowns and for any spikes in deaths from COVID-19 due to premature reopening. While it’s not impossible that the president will make the grave mistake of sending the US military into cities around the country now, he would then have to own the problem of the protest response in a way uncharacteristic of his total abdication of the duties of his office. He’d also be forced to reckon directly with the dangers to both law enforcement and citizens that he has stirred up with his rhetoric but that would probably be amplified with greater military presence.

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The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Mariann Budde, was not notified that the president would visit her church on Monday night, nor that tear gas would be used to clear his path of peaceful protestors. She immediately condemned the president’s words and his exploitation of the church as a backdrop. “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde told The Washington Post, noting that it was time for “moral leadership.” On CNN, she proclaimed: “We distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this president.”

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No one should expect moral leadership from Trump. He’s too small for this moment, when our nation’s long history of entrenched racism is being surfaced in our streets. He is too small to understand that much of what is happening in America today is peaceful protest and dissent, a tradition of civil disobedience that dates back to the nation’s founding and that is aimed at forcing this country to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality for all.

Trump is the president we have, not the president we need. And he is incapable of changing in the way this country deserves. Perhaps he himself suspects that he is incapable of leading America through this crisis, and that’s why he has chosen instead to flex the military, an impressive force when the nation is at war but a flaccid muscle for mending our torn-apart social fabric. Strength in this crisis does not consist of brute force but rather the compassion and the courage to address the root causes of the nation’s discontent.

Acevedo is the police chief in Houston, the hometown of George Floyd, the man who died last week under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, sparking the current protests. Like so many leaders around the country, Acevedo had a better message to share at this inflection point — the kind that might actually quell violence in his city’s streets and validate the outrage of peaceful protestors around the country. “So we stand with the Floyd family. We stand with our community of all colors, all races, all creeds, and we are going to stand with them and march with them until they get justice, because that’s what they deserve.”

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The president of the United States will probably never utter such words, however reasonable it is for Americans to expect them of their leaders. His fellow Republicans won’t force him to resign, as they should have long ago, and the election isn’t until November. But the least the president could do for this country now is retreat to his underground bunker in silence.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.