WASHINGTON – As he stood on stage at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, President Donald Trump reflected the depth of the crises facing his administration: Acknowledging “pain” felt by millions of Americans, he called for “healing, not hatred.”
Forty-eight hours later, peaceful protesters were cleared from a park near the White House as the president stood in the Rose Garden describing himself as “your president of law and order” and demanding that local officials “dominate the streets” – or else.
The whipsaw shift in tone underscored an emerging change of direction from the White House and its conservative allies: The increasingly confrontational demonstrations taking place across the USA, observers said, have given Trump an opportunity to reprise his get-tough approach to law enforcement from 2016.
“We’re not going to solve our issues of racial inequality or feelings of economic hopelessness brought on by the coronavirus pandemic overnight, but we can stop the riots and protests with bold, definitive and unapologetic action,” said Jason Miller, who served as a senior communications adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The president brandished that message with a high degree of drama Monday, appearing in the Rose Garden on short notice as Secret Service and military police swiftly cleared an adjacent park of protesters – their tear gas and flash-bang canisters punctuating his words. Trump then strolled through the park to stand outside a historic church within view of the White House that had been vandalized the night before.
“I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation, and that is exactly what I will do,” Trump said, asserting that if governors did not call up the National Guard to quell the violence he would do it for them. “We will end it now.”
Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sustained fire damage a day earlier as protests turned violent, followed reports that he had been hurried into an underground bunker at the White House as protests began to build on Friday – an episode that drew a storm of criticism. Trump wanted to pay his respects to the church but also wanted to leave the White House to prove he was not “in the bunker,” said one official who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s strategy.
But the display drew fierce criticism from Democrats, who noted that at the exact moment the president was describing himself as an “ally” of peaceful protesters, military police were clearing a park of protesters who were demonstrating without incident. Several Democratic lawmakers dismissed the event Monday as a “photo-op.”
“The fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. “I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump’s assault.”
Trump’s speech was short on specific action: Many of the governors in states affected by violence already had activated the National Guard. But it coincided with a push by the White House to ramp up the “law and order” rhetoric that Trump embraced in the 2016 campaign and during his inauguration, when he vowed to end “American carnage.”
In 2016, he repeatedly described himself as “the law and order candidate” at a time when the nation was wrestling with many of the same questions about police use of force and the targeting of African Americans as it is now.
“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country,” Trump said in the summer 2016 during an address in Virginia.
The president returned to that message in a call with governors Monday, calling them “weak” and arguing they needed to “dominate” the “radicals” and “anarchists” he said were behind the violence. Using blunt language, Trump urged the governors to crack down hard on the protests that have turned violent in dozens of cities.
In another example of that more aggressive messaging, White House officials said Monday that the president was considering invoking an 1807 federal law that would allow him to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to respond to protests in cities. Known as the Insurrection Act, it was last used in 1992 for the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.
“It’s one of the tools available,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said. “Whether the president decides to pursue that, that’s his prerogative. Right now we’re looking at a focus on the National Guard. That’s where it currently stands.”
Trump did not mention the act in his remarks.
Though Trump’s core supporters embraced the more combative approach, outside observers noted that it carries significant risk. Federal and state officials traditionally seek to lower the temperature when unrest breaks out, not raise it.
It’s possible Trump’s remarks could further escalate the demonstrations.
Trump has also largely side-stepped the underlying issues driving the protests: The death of George Floyd, the unarmed back man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. Trump said the nation is “sickened and revolted” by Floyd’s death – and he promised justice for the family – but stopped short of addressing the systemic concerns of racism and disparate use of force that have sparked the anger.
“I am not convinced that running on a platform on law and order is going to do much for him politically,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley. “His base will love it but given his propensity to overreach he will just turn off the swing voters in the suburbs.”
Matt Mackowiak, a GOP political consultant, was one of several Republicans who suggested Trump could bind the nation’s wounds with a formal address, perhaps from the Oval Office. Mackowiak spoke with USA TODAY before the president’s remarks.
“I believe a national address would be helpful if the president spoke to the intense anger over the senseless Floyd killing and urged calm and nonviolent protest,” he said. “I believe the silent majority sympathizes with anger over the Floyd killing while they are also horrified at the rioting and looting.”
Some Republican lawmakers have sharpened their criticism of the president’s tone during the unrest. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said some of Trump’s “tweets have not been helpful.” Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who is facing a tough re-election, said the president should highlight “the fact that we need to work on the underlying racial injustice in this country, but we need to do so in a peaceful manner.”
But administration officials indicated Monday that Trump believes he has spoken sufficiently on the topic, and that his goal would be to take actions to promote security. That approach is more in Trump’s wheelhouse: Setting up fights not only with those protesters who are causing trouble but also Democratic mayors in the besieged cities.
Through the highs and lows of his presidency, Trump’s polling has remained consistent – underscoring a conventional wisdom that most Americans have already made up theirs mind about him. It’s not clear that Trump could “heal” a highly polarized nation, several observers said, even if he wanted to.
“This is heartbreaking. The divide in our homes and among our friends is now on the streets,” veteran GOP consultant Frank Luntz told USA TODAY before Trump’s visit to St. John’s. “But politically, I understand why he’s remained quiet. The people he needs to address don’t want to hear him, and his base is appalled at the looting.”
The unrest and angst, much of it driven by racial tension, has prompted comparisons to 1968, when Richard Nixon ran for president in part on a “law and order” platform following race riots prompted by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University who has studied social crises, said that the comparison to the 1960s works only to a point.
Americans, he noted, were also angry with Lyndon Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.
“I do think there’s an interesting echo in that Lyndon Johnson was in many ways the author of his own defeat,” Dallek said.
But Johnson had already removed himself from the race in 1968. And Trump, Dallek noted, has already run a campaign focused on law and order.
“What (Trump) really promised was a restoration of order and what we’ve seen is really the opposite,” Dallek said. “In many ways he’s inflamed an already bad situation.”
Contributing: Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu.