The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s defense of his ‘shooting’ tweet doesn’t make much sense

Protesters kneel and pray as they keep vigil Friday at a makeshift memorial near the scene of the arrest of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. (Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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A hallmark of Donald Trump’s tenure in politics has been his ability to reframe even his most controversial comments in a way that his supporters will embrace and defend. At times, his comments are obviously intentionally vague, allowing him to say things that he clearly knows will be interpreted one way by his base but that he can still frame in another way to the media. At other times, the vagueness of his style of speaking ends up providing the elbow room he needs to try to walk away from controversy.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s appeal was described succinctly by writer Salena Zito. The media assessed Trump’s campaign as a sideshow and his comments as literal presentations of his beliefs (as one usually can with a presidential campaign), while his supporters took the candidate seriously but didn’t assume his statements were literal. It was a clever and insightful formulation, but also one that gave Trump a broad pass on standing behind clear statements of belief. Comments about criminal immigrants and former Arizona senator John McCain’s military service and scores of other things over the next five years got dunked in mud and presented with a shrug. Over time, each revision by Trump flipped the switch on a cottage industry aimed at bolstering and proving his new point, whatever it was.

The most recent example of Trump seeking to revise a controversial comment came Friday. Shortly after midnight, the president offered thoughts about protests in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd in police custody. For several nights, those protests had resulted in property damage and looting.

“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis,” Trump wrote. “A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right.”

Gov. Tim Walz (D) had already activated the National Guard by the time of Trump’s tweet.

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” Trump continued in another tweet. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

Those last three sentences jump around a lot. Trump says he spoke to Walz and indicated that the military would support the state, whatever that means. Then the controversial follow-up: The federal government would “assume control” if there was difficulty, but “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That loaded phrase, then an incongruous “thank you” to … someone.

Trump’s “looting/shooting” phrase appears to originate from Walter Headley, the police chief of Miami in the late 1960s. A contemporaneous news story reported that the shooting would come from the police: “His men have been told that any force, up to and including death, is proper when apprehending a felon.” During the next year’s presidential contest, segregationist candidate George Wallace used the phrase in the same way, with the same meaning.

It’s not obvious that Trump was directly aware of the phrase’s provenance, though it’s hard to believe he or his team whipped it up independently. In the context of the tweet, it’s as vague as it is menacing, hinged by an odd “but” to the idea that things in Minneapolis might get worse. Observers justifiably understood that Trump meant it the way Headley and Wallace had.

On Friday afternoon, after hours of outcry, Trump declared that this isn’t what he’d meant.

“Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night — or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot,” he wrote in another tweet. “I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means. It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement. It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media. Honor the memory of George Floyd!”

President Trump said May 29 he didn't know the racially charged history behind "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," but that it's "very accurate." (Video: The Washington Post)

That explanation itself doesn’t entirely make sense, and not only due to its convenience as a rationalization.

A motive for the shooting in Minneapolis hasn’t been confirmed, but the Star Tribune reported that the owner of a pawnshop that had been looted was arrested “ahead of possible murder charges.”

The incident in Louisville, though, was not obviously related to looting at all. Marcus Green, a reporter for WDRB in Louisville, confirmed that no looting had taken place in the city, though other news reports identified some limited property damage. There was a shooting at a protest in Denver, too, which Trump didn’t mention. There doesn’t appear to have been looting in that city either.

It’s important to note that the protest in Louisville was centered not on Floyd, but instead on the death of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician fatally shot by police when they entered her home in March. These were distinct acts and distinct protests, public expressions of frustration that resulted in different levels of anger. Trump tied them together simply because each had a shooting, and the president seemed eager to portray random shootings as a necessary outgrowth of the unrest.

At the risk of taking the president’s clarifying tweet literally, “looting leads to shooting” is either not what happened or doesn’t actually exonerate his earlier comments. In Louisville and Denver, the shootings apparently had nothing to do with looting at all. In Minneapolis, the shooting may have been connected to looting. In other words, the response to the looting may have led to the shooting, which is how the phrase was used by Headley. In that case, the shooters wore badges, but the meaning was the same. If Trump was warning looters that they might get shot, that generosity came only after disparaging them as “thugs.”

Where the media gets tied into knots is that we’re forced to acknowledge that it is, in fact, possible that Trump’s unclear commentary actually was intended to mean what he now claims it did. It’s all just murky enough, and Trump’s credibility so weak, that any number of possibilities exist. If you’re in the business of presenting a clarified reality to the public, you’re at a disadvantage when the president whips up various smokescreens. As he well knows.

Trump’s campaign released a statement insisting that of course Trump didn’t mean the alarming thing, and that of course it was the media and the Democrats trying to make Trump look bad that was the problem.

“We have witnessed again the media’s relentless twisting of President Trump’s words, and the Democrats seizing on that, to take the entire nation down the worst road imaginable,” the statement read. “ … When riots erupted in [Minneapolis] and elsewhere, he warned on Twitter that looting could quickly turn into violence.”

That much is true. The question at hand is who Trump was suggesting would deploy that violence. The context of his first tweet implied that it was the state — a suggestion that we’d all be justified in taking quite seriously.