U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday declared himself the â€œpresident of law and orderâ€ and said he would mobilize every available federal force both â€œcivilian and militaryâ€ as he vowed to put an immediate end to violent protests that have swept the nation for days.
In a brief statement delivered from the Rose Garden of the White House as law enforcement forces deployed tear gas and cleared out protesters just on the opposite side of Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump ordered governors and mayors to establish â€œan overwhelming law enforcement presenceâ€ until the protests have been quelled, and he threatened to send in the U.S. military to â€œquickly solve the problem for them.â€
As Trump spoke, police also fired rubber bullets at protesters gathered peacefully on the edge of Lafayette Square directly in front of the White House. After his speech and with the square cleared, the president walked across the street for a photo op in front of the the historic St. Johnâ€™s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible.
Peaceful demonstrations began in Minneapolis last week following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a police officerâ€™s knee to the neck for nearly nine minutes. But the protests descended into violence at times and quickly spread from coast to coast, with participants setting fire to and looting businesses, and clashing with law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear.
For the past three days, the uproar has lasted well into the night despite local leadersâ€™ imposing curfews, and has teetered on the presidentâ€™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.
â€œToday, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,â€ he said from the White House, warning that he would step in if a city or state â€œrefuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents.â€
Trump on Monday denounced the violence as â€œdomestic acts of terror,â€ 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.
â€œThe biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe,â€ Trump said, reading from a teleprompter. â€œI will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.â€
The presidentâ€™s sharp rhetoric on Monday, though couched in a more elevated tone befitting a nationally televised address, was hardly a departure from the incendiary tweets he fired off all weekend long. It also echoed the blunt instructions he gave the nationâ€™s governors on a call earlier in the day during which he berated them as â€œweakâ€ and urged them to â€œget much tougherâ€ on people in their states protesting police violence.
In both instances, the president made little mention of the root cause of the unrest, however, aside from acknowledging that Americans are â€œrightly sickened and revoltedâ€ by Floydâ€™s death. Trump vowed that justice would be served and that Floyd â€œwill not have died in vain,â€ but never spoke of the systemic changes protesters say are required to prevent more killings of unarmed black Americans by police.
â€œBut we cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob,â€ he continued in the Rose Garden. â€œThe biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe. I will fight to protect you. I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.â€
After threatening to unleash the military on unruly protesters,Â citing his authorityÂ under the Insurrection Act of 1807 to circumvent federal law barring the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement, the president turned and walked away, but not before dropping a cryptic line.
â€œThank you very much. And now I am going to pay my respects to a very, very special place,â€ he said without further explanationÂ as he headed back into the West Wing.
Immediately after Trump ended his speech, it became clear why police had begun to clear out Lafayette Square a short while earlier. Minutes after leaving the Rose Garden, he emerged from the White House surrounded by a security detail and made his way through a deserted Lafayette Square, statues covered in graffiti from the night before and protesters kept away by police in riot gear and mounted on horses.
Trump made his way across the street to St. Johnâ€™s, which had briefly caught fire in the previous nightâ€™s unrest. According to a press pool report, remnants of the tear gas lobbed at protesters spurred coughing and choking by some in the group, while Trump summoned Attorney General William Barr, his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, as he stood in front of cameras holding up a Bible. After several moments, Trump strode away, back onto the White House grounds.
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 for a SpaceX launch on Saturday during which he briefly addressed the violence.
While the president responded to questions from reporters about the killing last week, calling Floydâ€™s death a tragedy and asking the Justice Department to investigate the episode, he had ignored calls for a formal address to the nation â€” an idea thatÂ divided his advisersÂ â€” while firing off incendiary tweets online.
The brash language continued on Monday morningâ€™s call with the nationâ€™s governors.
â€œIf you donâ€™t dominate, youâ€™re wasting your time,â€ TrumpÂ told them, according to audio of the teleconference. â€œTheyâ€™re going to run over you, youâ€™re going to look like a bunch of jerks.â€
In the roughly hourlong call, Trump urged for a greater crackdown on the unrest and repeatedly praised the job the National Guard had done in Minneapolis over the weekend to bring under control what had become at times violent protests, saying that guardsmen â€œknocked them down â€¦ like bowling pins.â€
He continually cast the use of force as the only way to deter protesters once and for all, telling the governors that â€œthe harder you are, the tougher you are, the less likely theyâ€™re going to be hit.â€
â€œItâ€™s a movement that if you donâ€™t put it down, itâ€™ll get worse and worse,â€ 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 werenâ€™t heeding his pleas.
â€œThe only time itâ€™s successful is when youâ€™re weak,â€ he said of the protests. â€œAnd most of you are weak.â€ He later told governors who neglected to call in the National Guard that they were â€œmaking yourself look like fools,â€ naming none but name-dropping cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
In D.C., he said ominously, â€œweâ€™re going to do something that people havenâ€™t seen before. And youâ€™re gonna have total domination.â€
In the Rose Garden address, the president shed more light on his threat.
â€œAs 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 propertyâ€ in the District, he said. â€œWe are putting everybody on warning, our 7 p.m. curfew will be strictly enforced. Those who threaten innocent life and property will be arrested, detained and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.â€
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 â€œa thing of beauty.â€
â€œIt was an hour of bedlam, but when it was all over it was a beautiful thing and thatâ€™s the way it has to end,â€ Trump told the governors.
He also implored them to carry on with prosecutions of arrested protesters â€œor theyâ€™ll be back.â€
â€œYou have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time,â€ he said, asserting that â€œyou have to do retributionâ€ in order to properly deter future clashes.
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 Trumpâ€™s call to â€œdominateâ€ the scene and â€œgo after troublemakers.â€
Only one governor openly objected to the presidentâ€™s comments on the call.
â€œI wanted to take this moment, and canâ€™t let it pass,â€ said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, going on to outline his â€œextraordinaryâ€ concern about the presidentâ€™s â€œinflammatoryâ€ rhetoric, which he said was making the upheaval worse.
â€œWeâ€™ve got to have national leadership in calling for calm,â€ 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 hadnâ€™t spoken enough about Floydâ€™s death. Trump complained that he wasnâ€™t receiving enough credit for mentioning it at the SpaceX launch, telling the call participants that â€œwe just sent out a billion-dollar rocketâ€ but that he still mentioned Floyd at the top of his remarks.
â€œThe whole world was disgraced by it, not just our country,â€ he told the governors of the manner of Floydâ€™s death. â€œNobody can tell me I havenâ€™t spoken about it. Iâ€™ve spoken about it at great length. â€¦ But I also have to speak about law and order.â€
The president ended the call by instructing governors again to utilize the National Guard to clamp down on the protests, telling them that â€œyouâ€™re much better offâ€ with too many defense assets than too few, and â€œtoo few is unacceptable.â€
â€œSo go out and get â€˜em, good luck tonight,â€ he finished.
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about the involvement of Barr, who was captured by news cameras standing in the park with police just before they began to clear protesters out of the area, in that decision. But a department spokesperson, Kerri Kupec, said Barr was leading Monday nightâ€™s efforts in the District, after Trump called the handling of Sunday night’s protests a â€œdisgrace.â€œ
But the move by law enforcement officers to deploy tear gas and fire rubber bullets to enable the presidentâ€™s photo op immediately sparked outrage.
Mariann Edgar Budde, the diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which oversees St. Johnâ€™s, tore into the president in a CNN interview on Monday night.
â€œLet me be clear. The president just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese without my permission as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything our churches stand for,â€ she told host Anderson Cooper. â€œAnd to do so, as you just said, he sanctioned the use of tear gas by police officers in riot gear to clear the church yard. I am outraged.â€
Moreover, she said, the president did not use the church to pray, nor did he address the unrest simmering across the country.
â€œI just can’t believe what my eyes have seen tonight,â€ Budde continued. She then blasted what she called an â€œabuse of sacred symbols for the people of faith in this country to justify language, rhetoric, an approach to this crisis that is antithetical to everything we stand for.â€
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also slammed the move, pointing out in a tweet that officersâ€™ clearing of the park came less than half an hour before the cityâ€™s curfew went into effect.
â€œFederal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult,â€ she wrote on Twitter. â€œShameful!â€
Shia Kapos contributed to this report.