President Donald Trump pledged a crackdown on the protests that arose from the police killing of George Floyd, sparking concerns from some Democrats and Republicans that his response to the crisis further deepens the divide in a country already unnerved by a pandemic, distressed economy and racial unrest.
Mayors from at least 25 cities issued curfews for Saturday night, as police responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and arrests to disperse occasionally violent crowds. In the nation’s capital, more than 1,000 demonstrators hit the streets, including some who threw bricks and dispersed only early Sunday morning when the Secret Service began to fire tear gas.
The President tweeted on Saturday that if protesters breached the White House’s fence, they would “have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.” And he called on Democratic officials to “get MUCH tougher” or the federal government “will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests.”
On Sunday, Trump tweeted his thanks to the National Guard and the job they did in Minneapolis Saturday night before calling for the National Guard to be used in “Other Democrat run Cities and States.”
As of Sunday morning, approximately 5,000 Guard Soldiers and Airmen were activated in response to civil disturbances in 15 states and the District of Columbia, with another 2,000 prepared to activate if needed, according to a statement from the National Guard Bureau of Public Affairs.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle said on Sunday that the President should instead focus on unifying the nation or decline to address the country at all.
“He should just stop talking,” said Democratic Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper. “He speaks and he makes it worse.”
“It’s sort of continuing to escalate the rhetoric,” added Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on CNN. “I think it’s just the opposite of the message that should have been coming out of the White House.”
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, also urged Trump to help “calm the nation” and to stop sending “divisive tweets” in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Her comments followed a press conference Saturday where Bowser noted how Trump’s reference to the “vicious dogs” was “no subtle reminder” of segregationists who would attack African Americans with dogs.
On Fox News Sunday, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said that some of Trump’s tweets were “not constructive.” Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, said he talked with the President on Saturday and told him that it’s beneficial for him to “focus” on the death of Floyd and to “recognize the benefit of nonviolent protests.”
The protests this weekend came after Officer Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who thrust his knee into Floyd’s neck as he begged for air for more than 8 minutes, was arrested and charged with murder. The Department of Justice has vowed to quickly proceed with a federal investigation into Floyd’s death. Protesters say they want to see charges for all four police officers involved in Floyd’s death.
The Trump administration’s response
In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, defended Trump, saying the White House and the President support peaceful demonstrations. He went as far to deny that there is systemic racism in America among police agencies. O’Brien argued that “99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans,” calling the rest “bad apples.” He admitted that there are “some bad cops that are racist” and others who are poorly trained.
A serious divide has emerged among Trump’s top allies and advisers over how the President should address several nights of unrest across the country. Trump is being urged by some advisers to formally address the nation and call for calm, while others have said he should condemn the rioting and looting more forcefully or risk losing middle-of-the-road voters in November, according to several sources familiar with the deliberations.
Trump did address Floyd’s death on Saturday during a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after the NASA/SpaceX rocket launch, saying that he was “in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack and menace” and that “healing, not hatred” is “the mission at hand.”
“The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy. It should never have happened,” the President said. “It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger and grief.”
But the Trump administration’s response has not satisfied its critics – or even members of Floyd’s family.
Speaking to MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, George’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said his conversation with Trump was “so fast.”
“He didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak,” Floyd said. “It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’
“And I just told him, I want justice. I said that I couldn’t believe that they committed a modern-day lynching in broad daylight,” he said.
The President said he had spoken to Floyd’s family on Friday, the same day he tweeted that “THUGS” are “dishonoring” his memory. “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted.
Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said that after those comments and others, including his “inability to condemn Nazis” after the Charlottesville riots in 2017, the President no longer “has the capacity to break my heart.”
“Every time I respond to Donald Trump, I do it from a place where I realize he doesn’t deserve a response, he doesn’t deserve my attention or my emotion. Our people do,” Booker said on CNN. “Donald Trump no longer has the capacity to break my heart, to surprise me.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Christina Maxouris and Holly Yan contributed to this report.