What began as peaceful demonstrations in Minneapolis last week descended into violence at times and quickly spread from coast to coast, with protesters setting fire to and looting businesses, and clashing with law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear.
Trump on Monday denounced the violence as “domestic acts of terror,” accusing far-left anti-fascist groups of being responsible for the chaos as he threatened to use military force to bring them to a halt.
“The biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe,” Trump said. “I will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
His comments echo the brash instructions he gave the nation’s governors on a call earlier in the day during which he berated them as “weak” and urged them to “get much tougher” on people in their states protesting police violence.
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” Trump said, according to audio of the teleconference. “They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
In the roughly hourlong call, Trump repeatedly urged for a greater crackdown on the unrest.
The combative tone from the president echoes the bulk of his rhetoric on the protests. For the last three days, the uproar has lasted well into the night despite local leaders’ imposing curfews, and has teetered on the president’s front yard and the surrounding areas. Dozens of state leaders have called in the National Guard to restore order, a move Trump cheered and urged other governors to replicate in Monday’s call.
He made little mention of the root cause of the unrest, however, briefly mentioning his intent to “honor” Floyd’s memory but otherwise remaining silent on the issue of police killings of unarmed black Americans.
The Rose Garden address and ensuing photo op came as Trump faced criticism for shrinking from public view over the weekend, remaining inside the White House except for a trip to Florida on Saturday during which he briefly addressed the violence.
While the president responded to questions from reporters about the killing last week, calling Floyd’s death a tragedy and asking the Justice Department to investigate the episode, he had ignored calls for some kind of formal address to the nation — an idea that divided his advisers — while firing off incendiary tweets online.
On Monday’s call, though, Trump repeatedly praised the job that the National Guard had done in Minneapolis over the weekend to get what had become at times violent protests under control, saying that guardsmen “knocked them down … like bowling pins.”
He continually cast the use of force as the only way to deter protesters once and for all, telling the governors that “the harder you are, the tougher you are, the less likely they’re going to be hit.”
“It’s a movement that if you don’t put it down it’ll get worse and worse,” Trump added, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.
Trump went further than his calls for greater force, lambasting some governors who he said weren’t heeding his pleas.
“The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak,” he said of the protests. “And most of you are weak.” He later told governors who neglected to call in the National Guard that they were “making yourself look like fools,” naming none but name-dropping cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
In D.C., he said ominously, “we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before. And you’re gonna have total domination.”
He also compared the current moment with the Occupy Wall Street movement, calling the use of force to sweep out those protesters in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis “a thing of beauty.”
“It was an hour of bedlam, but when it was all over it was a beautiful thing and that’s the way it has to end,” Trump told the governors.
He also implored them to carry on with prosecutions of arrested protesters “or they’ll be back.”
“You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time,” he said, asserting that “you have to do retribution” in order to properly deter future clashes.
The president’s calls with governors have become a somewhat routine occurrence throughout the coronavirus crisis, though Monday’s centered almost entirely on the unrest across the country and featured Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley.
Barr told participants that the Justice Department would be using joint terrorist task forces to track instigators at the protests.
He urged them to control crowds rather than react to them, and echoed Trump’s call to “dominate” the scene and “go after troublemakers.”
Only one governor openly objected to the president’s comments on the call.
“I wanted to take this moment, and can’t let it pass,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, also a Democrat, going on to outline his “extraordinary” concern about the president’s “inflammatory” rhetoric, which he said was making the upheaval worse.
“We’ve got to have national leadership in calling for calm,” Pritzker told the president, who responded in kind and accused the governor of mishandling the coronavirus outbreak in his state.
It was at this point Trump also lashed out at criticism that he hadn’t spoken enough about Floyd’s death. Trump complained that he wasn’t receiving enough credit for mentioning it, telling the call participants that “we just sent out a billion-dollar rocket” but that he still mentioned Floyd at the top of his remarks.
“The whole world was disgraced by it, not just our country,” he told the governors of the manner of Floyd’s death. “Nobody can tell me I haven’t spoken about it. I’ve spoken about it at great length. … But I also have to speak about law and order.”
The president ended the call by instructing governors again to use the National Guard to clamp down on the protests, telling them that “you’re much better off” with too many defense assets than too few, and “too few is unacceptable.”
“So go out and get ‘em, good luck tonight,” he finished.
Shia Kapos contributed to this report.