Wielding extraordinary federal authority, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened the nation’s governors on Monday that he would deploy the military to states if they did not stamp out violent protests over police brutality that have roiled the nation over the past week. His announcement came as police under federal command forced back peaceful demonstrators with tear gas so he could walk to a nearby church and pose with a Bible.
Trump’s bellicose rhetoric came as the nation braced for another round of violence at a time when the country is already buckling because of the coronavirus outbreak and the Depression-level unemployment it has caused. The president demanded an end to the heated protests in remarks from the White House Rose Garden and vowed to use more force to achieve that aim.
If governors throughout the country do not deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers to “dominate the streets,” Trump said the U.S. military would step in to “quickly solve the problem for them.”
“We have the greatest country in the world,” the president declared. “We’re going to keep it safe.”
A military deployment by Trump to U.S. states would mark a stunning federal intervention not seen in modern American history. Yet the message Trump appeared to be sending with the brazen pushback of protesters outside the White House was that he sees few limits to what he is willing to do.
Trump aides liken moment to 1968
Some around the president likened the moment to 1968, when Richard Nixon ran as the law-and-order candidate in the aftermath of a summer of riots, capturing the White House. But despite his efforts to portray himself as a political outsider, Trump is an incumbent who risks being held responsible for the violence.
Minutes before Trump began speaking, police and National Guard soldiers began aggressively forcing back hundreds of peaceful protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, where they were chanting against police brutality and the Minneapolis death of George Floyd. As Trump spoke, tear gas canisters could be heard exploding.
Floyd died last week after he was pinned to the pavement by a police officer who put his knee on the handcuffed black man’s neck until he stopped breathing. His death set off protests that spread from Minneapolis across America. His brother Terrence pleaded with protesters on Monday to remain peaceful.
Five months before Election Day, the president made clear that he would stake his re-election efforts on convincing voters that his strong-arm approach was warranted to quell the most intense civil unrest since the 1960s. He made little effort to address the grievances of black Americans and others outraged by Floyd’s death and the scourge of police brutality, undermining what his campaign had hoped would be increased appeal to black voters.
The scene in and around the White House on Monday night appeared to be carefully orchestrated. As the crowd of protesters grew, Attorney General William Barr arrived in Lafayette Park to look over at the demonstrations and the swarm of law enforcement.
The sudden shift in tactics against the protesters was initially a mystery. Then, after finishing his Rose Garden remarks, Trump emerged from the White House gates and walked through the park to St. John’s Church, where an office had been set on fire the previous night.
Trump holds up Bible
Trump, who rarely attends church, held up a Bible and gathered a group of advisers — all white — to pose for photos.
The moment was quickly decried by Trump’s critics, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying the president “used the military to push out a peaceful protest so he could have a photo op at a church.”
“It’s all just a reality TV show for this president,” he said on Twitter. “Shameful.”
The move also brought a quick condemnation from Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde.
“The president just used a Bible and one of the churches of my diocese as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for,” she said.
Federal law permits presidents to dispatch the military into states to suppress an insurrection or if a state is defying federal law, legal experts said. But Trump’s statements also set up an immediate conflict with officials in New York and other states who asserted that the president does not have the unilateral right to send in troops against the will of local governments.
Let’s switch it up, y’all’
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, Floyd’s brother Terrence made an emotional plea for peace at the site where Floyd was arrested and died.
“Let’s switch it up, y’all. Let’s switch it up. Do this peacefully, please,” Terrence Floyd said as he urged people to stop the violence and use their power at the ballot box. Also Monday, an autopsy commissioned for Floyd’s family found that he died of asphyxiation from neck and back compression, the family’s attorneys said.
Authorities in many cities have blamed the violence on outside agitators, though have provided little evidence to back that up. But on Monday, federal authorities arrested a 28-year-old Illinois man saying he had posted self-recorded video on his Facebook page last week that showed him in Minneapolis handing out explosive devices and encouraging people to throw them at law enforcement officers. The video also showed him attempting to light a business on fire and looting, according to an FBI affidavit.
More than 5,600 people nationwide have been arrested over the past week for such offences as stealing, blocking highways and breaking curfew, according to a count by The Associated Press.