U.S. President Donald Trump has seized on destructive nationwide protests against police brutality to portray himself as an icon of law and order, eschewing the soothing role past presidents have adopted in similar moments as he seeks to turn the election-year conversation from his widely panned handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The president on Sunday blamed the protests on Antifa, a loosely organized leftist movement that is a frequent target of conservative critics, and said he would declare the group to be terrorists. His political advisers believe the move pressures his re-election challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, to either agree with the president — splitting with the demonstrators — or side with people that some White House officials regard as rioters.
But in choosing to seize on calm the political and racial divisions inflamed by the death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis police custody last week, the president risks alienating those U.S. voters looking for a leader who will console and unify. The coronavirus outbreak that Trump has sought to relegate to a back burner, meanwhile, continues to infect upwards of 1,000 Americans daily.
By painting himself as a purveyor of law and order confronting political enemies he’s depicted as incompetent or crazed radicals, the president seeks to recreate the 2016 formula that put him in the White House, when the enthusiasm of Trump’s “forgotten Americans” overwhelmed a dispirited and divided center and left.
But even some in Trump’s camp worry this may be one crisis too many for a president who has seemed to thrive on them. Even as the protests rage, voters are also enduring a coronavirus death toll that’s exceeded 100,000 and a U.S. economy in tatters.
And people willing to take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic will surely show up to vote in November, one person close to Trump’s campaign fretted.
Yet Biden has so far struggled to find his own footing on the protests that followed the death of George Floyd. His first substantive response to the demonstrations was a statement emailed to reporters after midnight Sunday morning.
“It took two days of rioting across the country until Joe Biden finally released a statement, published after midnight this morning, to urge for an end to the violence,” Steve Guest, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in a statement on Sunday.
Biden visited a protest site in his home city of Wilmington on Sunday, along with Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.
“The only way to bear this pain is to turn all that anguish to purpose,” Biden said in an Instagram post showing him speaking to an unidentified man and child at the site. “And as president, I will help lead this conversation — and more importantly, I will listen.”
Trump opted over the weekend against his own national address — a venue where he’s struggled before to portray empathy. He instead limited his public remarks on the demonstrations that roiled cities across the nation to the preface of a speech in Florida celebrating the first launch of U.S. astronauts from U.S. soil since 2011.
Rather than reaching for unity, Trump vowed to end “mob violence” and confront “radical left criminals.”
On Twitter, the president declared he’d name demonstrators as members of a terrorist organization and threatened protesters near the White House with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.” His critics said he was purposely evoking racist imagery from the civil rights protests of the last century, when police set dogs on African Americans and their allies.
Trump said he would deploy the National Guard to communities where violence erupted and encouraged his supporters to convene for a counter-protest at the White House, all the while blaming the media and Democratic leaders for the strife.
While the president offered public condolences and the promise of a targeted federal investigation into Floyd’s death — the latest member of a tragic fraternity of unarmed black Americans who have died in interactions with police — the president signaled little appetite for the systemic changes demanded by protesters.
He egged on law enforcement to react even more forcefully to violent protests and discounted alarm over images of police officers ramming demonstrators with vehicles. Trump defended the “overwhelming majority” of police on Saturday, saying they were “incredible in every way” — a sentiment echoed by his national security adviser on Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s systemic racism,” Robert O’Brien told CNN. “I think 99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans.”
But Floyd’s own brother criticized the president for not listening to his pleas for reforms in a phone call earlier in the week, telling MSNBC that Trump “didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak.”
And Trump’s response drew concern from at least one ally, Senator Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican. He said he had told Trump that some of his tweets on the protests were “not constructive.”
“We talked about the fact that there is a constructive way to have a dialogue with a nation,” Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said in an interview with Fox News. He said the tenor of the conversation was similar to concerns he expressed to Trump in the aftermath of a 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the president has shown throughout his political career — from his grievance-laden campaign to his reaction to Charlottesville, when he famously said there were “very fine people on both sides” — that he sees more advantage in voicing the sentiments of his narrow but electorally potent base of supporters than attempting national unity and healing.
And the protests offer Trump another opportunity to try to shift focus from the coronavirus pandemic, which most Americans believe he has handled poorly, according to public polling. A majority of Americans — 53 percent — said in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday that they disapproved of Trump’s performance.
Since the politically disastrous moment in April when Trump suggested COVID-19 might be treated with light or by injecting disinfectant into patients, Trump has looked to escalate tensions with China — accusing the country of misleading the world over the pandemic. He’s also publicly sparred with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, baselessly accusing him of murder while he was a congressman, and with Twitter after the social media company appended two of his tweets with fact-checking links.
There’s some evidence that Trump’s strategy may work. While the president trailed Biden by 10 percentage points in the same ABC News/Washington Post poll, the margin was halved when participants were limited to those who say they are certain to vote in November.
And while 31 percent of Biden supporters say they are very enthusiastic about backing the Democrat, more than twice as many Trump supporters — 64 percent — say the same about the president. Those margins suggest Trump remains competitive despite disillusionment with his coronavirus response.
And Trump’s allies believe Biden is poorly situated to exploit the Floyd protests.
Less than two weeks ago, the former vice president was forced to apologize for his remark to a radio host that African Americans who haven’t decided to vote for him “ain’t black.” While Biden largely follows federal health authorities’ advice and remains home during the coronavirus pandemic, he has only been able to address civil unrest following Floyd’s death via a video message distributed by Twitter, prior to his Sunday morning statement.
The president’s campaign on Sunday said Biden should be asked whether he supported Trump’s largely symbolic move to label Antifa a terrorist organization, suggesting the president hopes to either force the vice president to support his move — or denounce protesters and risk further alienation with left-wing voters.
Biden has not yet proposed any new policy ideas in response to the police killings beyond a “national conversation.”
He’s addressed his own role as architect of the 1994 crime bill, which was widely supported at the time by Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus but is now seen as having had a disproportionate, harmful effect on black suspects. Biden has a criminal-justice platform that undoes some of the less popular provisions of the earlier measure.
But the president’s decision to increasingly align himself with police and against protesters carries risk as well. Trump’s re-election strategy relies on again winning at least either Michigan, Ohio, or Pennsylvania. Major cities in each of those states saw significant anti-police brutality protests following Floyd’s death.
And the president’s attacks on the Democratic leadership of Minnesota, as well as tweets seen as inflaming tensions on the streets of Minneapolis, may hurt him in a state his campaign had seen as a prime pick-up opportunity. Before the Floyd killing and unrest, Biden held a 5 percentage-point lead in the state, according to a May 25 poll published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and the local NBC affiliate, KARE 11.