President Donald Trump called the nation’s governors “weak” during a call on Monday, urging a tougher crackdown on massive protests against police brutality and racist policing across the United States.
“You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate,” Trump said, according to audio of the call obtained by HuffPost. (To listen, see the video above.)
“Most of you are weak,” Trump told governors on a video call that also included law enforcement and national security officials. “You have to arrest people.”
Attorney General Bill Barr and Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Trump on the call. Trump said he had placed Milley “in charge” and said he planned to “activate” Barr “very strongly.”
”And you can’t do the deal where they get one week in jail,” Trump continued. “These are terrorists. These are terrorists. And they’re looking to do bad things to our country.”
“You have to arrest people and you have to put them in jail for 10 years,” he said. “And you’ll never see this stuff again.”
Trump’s remarks came after days of protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes; for much of that time, Floyd was unresponsive. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who along with three others was fired over the incident, was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
While most demonstrators peacefully gathered, at points the protests turned violent, with some attendees vandalising and stealing from businesses. Many states activated the National Guard to help with law enforcement, and many police responded to protesters with authoritarian tactics.
Trump has responded to the protests with inflammatory rhetoric — at one point suggesting protesters should be shot, and at another point saying any protester who reached the White House grounds would be met with the “most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons” — and has done almost nothing to suggest he wants to ease tensions in the country.
His comments on Monday fit his often-authoritarian worldview, and are the latest in his long history of demeaning protesters and praising crackdowns on dissent. In a 1990 interview, Trump praised China’s leadership for its brutal and deadly suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square, claiming they had shown “the power of strength.”
The president on Monday also said Minnesota had become a “laughingstock all over the world,” and specifically criticised the response in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York City. He said the arrival of the National Guard in Minneapolis was “domination” and “a beautiful thing to watch.”
At one point in the hour-long call, Trump told the governors they should aggressively prosecute protesters and pursue long prison terms for any crimes committed.
“You don’t have to be too careful,” Trump said. “You have to do the prosecutions. If you don’t do the prosecutions, they’re just going to be back. … Somebody throwing a rock, that’s like shooting a gun. You have to do retribution, you have to use your legal system.”
While the comments alarmed some of the people on the call, there was little pushback from the nation’s governors. Throughout the call, Trump suggested the riots and protests were not the result of anger at policing policies, but were instead the result of professional instigators and a supposedly organised movement.
“These are professional anarchists in many cases,” Trump said, adding of the protesters: “These are easily led people.”
Nearly every governor seemed to accept this frame. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican and frequent critic of the president, told Trump that he “couldn’t agree more with what you said.”
“Peace through strength,” Hogan said, citing his experience handling the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody.
“Everybody’s saying the same thing about these out-of-town agitators,” Hogan continued. “It seems to be very organised.”
Maine Democratic Governor Janet Mills, a former attorney general, asked Trump and Barr for any “intelligence” they had “regarding the source of the protests and bad actors and professional instigators.”
“I’d like to be able to prepare for any professional instigators,” she said. “We haven’t seen that yet in my state.”
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) similarly asked for any intelligence the federal government might have about groups targeting Louisiana.
The only governor to directly challenge Trump during the call was Illinois Governor JB Pritzker (D). “I’ve been extraordinarily concerned about the rhetoric that’s been used by you. It’s been inflammatory and it’s not OK for that officer to choke George Floyd to death,” Pritzker said. “We have to call for calm. We have to have police reform.”
Trump shot back: “I don’t like your rhetoric much either,” before criticising how Pritzker had handled the coronavirus pandemic and arguing that he had addressed police violence on Saturday in his brief remarks about Floyd’s death before watching the takeoff of a SpaceX rocket carrying two American astronauts.
“Before I spoke about the rocket, I spoke as to what happened with respect to Mr Floyd. I thought what happened was a disgrace,” Trump said.
After the call, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) released a statement criticising the president for “viciously” attacking the governors.
“The president’s dangerous comments should be gravely concerning to all Americans, because they send a clear signal that this administration is determined to sow the seeds of hatred and division, which I fear will only lead to more violence and destruction,” Whitmer said. “We must reject this way of thinking. This is a moment that calls for empathy, humanity and unity.”
While Barr outlined federal criminal charges protesters and rioters could possibly face, it was unclear what role Milley and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, who was also on the call, might play in domestic law enforcement.
“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battle space, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper told the governors.
At another point, Mills expressed concern about the president’s scheduled trip to Maine later this week, saying, “Your presence may cause security problems for our state.”
“We’ll look into that. We have a tremendous crowd of people showing up, as you know,” Trump responded. “They like their president.”
At that point, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice — a Democrat-turned-Republican and Trump loyalist — interjected to invite the president to West Virginia instead.
“She tried to talk me out of it now I think she probably talked me into it,” Trump said of Mills. “She just doesn’t understand me very well.”