As Trump calls protesters ‘terrorists,’ tear gas clears a path for his walk to a church

  • >> The New York Times
    Published: 2020-06-02 11:43:35 BdST

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President Donald Trump makes a statement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Monday, June, 1, 2020. The New York Times

President Donald Trump on Monday angrily denounced the demonstrators who have used violence to call attention to the deaths of black men killed by the police as “organisers” of terrorism, and threatened to send the US military to states where governors could not bring the protests under control.

“If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” Trump said in brief remarks in the Rose Garden, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

As the president began speaking, the police used tear gas and flash grenades to clear out the crowd that had gathered across the street in Lafayette Square so that after he was done, Trump could walk to a boarded-up St John’s Episcopal Church, the so-called Church of the Presidents, and pose for photographs in front of it while holding a Bible.

In vowing to bring “law and order” to protests across the country that have sometimes led to looting and arson, the president reserved some of his harshest language for protesters in Washington, where demonstrations Friday night forced his evacuation to a protected White House bunker. They continued with a growing intensity Saturday night, and again Sunday night, when St John’s briefly caught fire.

“What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace,” Trump said. “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.”

The president blamed the destruction on the nation’s governors. “States have failed to take care of their citizens, like the young man in Dallas who was left dying on the street or the woman in upstate New York viciously attacked by thugs,” the president said, recounting some of the violent episodes that angered him.

His remedy is a federal law that gives the president broad power to federalise states’ National Guard troops or to send in the military to restore order in a situation when rioting has left local authorities unable to enforce the law.

It is not always necessary for a governor to request that the federal government send in troops for domestic law enforcement purposes, legal specialists said. Some laws ultimately leave it up to the president to determine when such an intervention is necessary.

Trump told the Army on Monday to deploy active-duty military police to Washington, a military official said, but the deployment may not be limited to those units. Washington is the one jurisdiction in the country where the Army can do so without first consulting the governor of a state.

The deployment of the military police unit — a battalion of some 200 to 500 troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina — is a sharp escalation in the response to the riots and protests until now mounted by the Secret Service and the local police. One military official likened the deployment to Trump requesting his own “palace guard” to protect him from protesters.

In addition to the active-duty military police and engineering units on their way to Washington, the Defence Department has also requested 600-800 additional National Guard troops from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Utah join 1,200 DC National Guard troops, a Pentagon official said Monday night. Some of those troops are on their way and others are already in the capital.

Gov Tim Walz of Minnesota, whose state has been at the centre of the protests, has declined Trump’s offer of a military police response in his state, and other governors have followed Walz’s lead.

Trump’s address in the Rose Garden — an event that aides were not certain would take place until about 20 minutes before he delivered it — was shaded in anger and laced with the increasingly aggressive language he had used in the 48 hours since he observed a rocket launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

There, he devoted much of a speech to the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died after his neck was pinned under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

“We are reminded that America is always in the process of transcending great challenges,” the president said that afternoon after two astronauts were sent into orbit.

But after Trump spent the rest of the weekend imbibing news coverage of the protests, including the attempted arson of St John’s Church, a much darker interpretation of the nation’s struggles had emerged.

By the time he hosted a nearly hourlong private conference call on Monday with a group of the nation’s governors, the president had reverted to the strong-arm language he favours when discussing law enforcement.

“You have to dominate,” Trump told the governors, warning them that “you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks” if the National Guard were not heavily deployed in protest areas.

“You have to do retribution,” he said, according to an audio recording of the call obtained by The New York Times, demanding the governors “fight back” or at least sentence the protesters to stiff prison terms.

“And you can’t do the deal where they get one week in jail,” he said. “These are terrorists. These are terrorists. And they’re looking to do bad things to our country.”

Trump’s comments drew an emotional response from governors of both parties, who did not seem prepared to use the tactics he suggested against protesters.

“A posture of a force on the ground is both unsustainable militarily, it’s also unsustainable socially,” Walz told reporters soon after the call, “because it’s the antithesis of how we live.”

His aggressive language was a breaking point for at least one moderate Republican who has largely avoided conflict with Trump, Gov Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.

“I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not,” Baker told reporters in Boston, alluding to Trump’s urging the governors to “dominate” protesters.

“At so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found,” said Baker, his voice breaking. “Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness and self-interest.”

The exchanges and his remarks later in the day illustrated the depth of Trump’s anger over the at-times violent protests that have bubbled up in more than 100 US cities. They also revealed how precarious his relationships with the nation’s governors have become after months of tangling with them over a response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even members of Trump’s administration privately admitted Monday that they have struggled to keep up as the president careened from speaking about Floyd’s death Saturday in Florida to calling for militarised crackdowns.

For days, aides had debated sending Trump out for a formal address, with some wanting to wait until there were more concrete plans to announce to the nation, including action items to address racial tensions, a person familiar with the discussions said.

But on Monday, the president was squarely focused on the protesters, first in his call with the governors and then in the Rose Garden.

He briefly mentioned Floyd in his statement and only addressed him at the end of the governor’s call after Gov J B Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, said his comments have inflamed race relations in the United States.

“We have to call for calm,” Pritzker, whose state was hit with a wave of looting over the weekend, told the president. “The rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House is making it worse,” he added.

Trump rejected the criticism. “I don’t like your rhetoric much either,” he said.

Trump made it clear throughout the call that he was not about to take a moment of deep national crisis to appeal for reconciliation. The president, who had just spoken with President Vladimir Putin of Russia before addressing the governors, told them that Minnesota had become “a laughingstock all over the world.”

Other governors pushed back, suggesting Trump’s presence in their states could provoke unrest. Gov Janet Mills of Maine, a Democrat, told the president that his planned trip to a medical swab factory north of Bangor this week “may cause security problems.” Trump responded by dismissing her caution and saying he was even more determined to go.

After the president made extensive and uncorroborated claims about the protesters being part of an organised cabal, Mills, with evident scepticism, asked for proof. “I’d love to get the intelligence you appear to have access to,” she said.

Not all of the governors were uneasy with Trump’s language, particularly his fellow Republicans. After Mills sought to dissuade the president from going to Maine, Gov Jim Justice of West Virginia spoke up when it was another governor’s turn to say that the president was welcome in his state.

And Gov Henry McMaster of South Carolina seemed to echo some of Trump’s conspiratorial thinking. McMaster said that some of the protesters were being paid, and “we even hear some of them get a bonus if they get arrested.”

On the call, Trump made clear his admiration for the tactics deployed by the National Guard, repeatedly offering a sort of play-by-play commentary of what he was witnessing on television, delighting in protesters being knocked down “like bowling pins” and sounding more like a bystander than the president.

Later, in an appearance on CNN, Pritzker and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York declined Trump’s call for more troops. Cuomo called the president’s remarks “shameful, really truly shameful.”

Trump told the governors he was putting Gen. Mark A Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in charge,” but did not immediately specify what that meant or if he would deploy the military to quell the violence in the nation’s cities. At the Pentagon, officials expressed surprise at Trump’s comments, and referred questions to the White House.

Trump has long used language favoured by authoritarians when speaking about protesters. In 1990, Trump told Playboy magazine that Beijing showed “the power of strength” when it used deadly military force to quell the student-led demonstrations at Tiananmen Square the year before.

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

In 2016, Trump said the comments were not an endorsement, before calling the students “rioters” and reiterating that a “strong, powerful government” stopped the protests.

As president, Trump has openly nudged law enforcement officers to treat those apprehended with harsh tactics.

“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said to applause from Long Island police officers in a 2017 speech.

Almost on cue, after Trump concluded his Rose Garden speech, camouflage-clad police from the National Guard surged in front of the first line of law enforcement officers that had already pushing protesters back from the mouth of Lafayette Square.

With the area cleared by officers using riot control methods, Trump, whose aides winced as he was mocked by his critics for having retreated to the bunker below the White House complex Friday night, left the White House and walked to St John’s Church, where he has rarely ventured since taking office. It was a few hours after Joe Biden, the president’s opponent, had appeared with black leaders in a Delaware church.

As Attorney General William Barr and several other administration officials, all of them white, appeared next to Trump, he stood in front of the sanctuary and hoisted a Bible to the sky as a cacophony of sirens blared in the background.

“Greatest country in the world,” Trump said, without opening the book or offering a prayer. “And we’re going to keep it safe.”

Bishop Mariann E Budde, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said that a priest visiting St John’s was tear-gassed alongside protesters and that she had not been told Trump would be making the trek to the church.

“He did not pray,” she said. “He did not mention George Floyd, he did not mention the agony of people who have been subjected to this kind of horrific expression of racism and white supremacy for hundreds of years. We need a president who can unify and heal. He has done the opposite of that and we are left to pick up the pieces.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company