Then a shift, from criticism to praise.
“We love our police!” Trump exclaimed in June 2017 as a protester was being marched out. “We love our police!”
The crowd roared.
It’s a sentiment that Trump offers often, about two dozen times as president. He loves the police; he loves law enforcement. In the context of those moments at the rally, though, the message is slightly different: We — Trump and his supporters — love our police in particular as they are punishing our opponents. The police are doing their jobs, removing protesters from the venue, but in the moment, they seem like allies of the president simply by virtue of what they’re doing.
He reframes the police as political allies in contexts beyond his rallies, too. Last October, while watching Fox News, Trump highlighted the story of a group of officers who were told by the mayor of their city that they could not wear their uniforms to political rallies — such as an upcoming rally for the president. The police responded by selling “Cops for Trump” shirts. During his rally, Trump invited the officers onstage to loud applause.
Those officers were in Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd at the hands of police last week spurred the protests that have unfolded since. The man Trump praised after appearing on Fox was the union president, Bob Kroll, whose disciplinary record includes accusations about the use of excessive force and racial slurs.
Trump isn't the first elected official of either party to embrace law enforcement. Endorsements from police unions are highly sought during elections, as police unions are well aware. Nor is Trump the first Republican to recognize how members of his party in particular revere law enforcement. Trump is, however, both the most eager promoter of police officers in recent political history — and unusual in explicitly encouraging the police to emphasize physical strength and intimidation at the expense actual law enforcement.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump often suggested that the protesters who appeared at his rallies should be roughed up. At a rally in February 2016, Trump was critical of police for not handling a protester more energetically.
“In the good old days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this,” he said. “A lot quicker. In the good old days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast. But today everyone is so politically correct.”
His speech at the Republican convention that year came shortly after an attack on police officers in Dallas left five dead.
“An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Trump said. “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.”
Trump took office the following January, promising an end to “American carnage.” Six months later, he traveled to Long Island to give a speech ostensibly about the threat posed by gangs of criminal immigrants.
Standing in front of a number of police officers in uniform, Trump described a conversation with Thomas Homan, then head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I said, ‘Hey, Tom, let me ask you a question — how tough are these guys, MS-13?’” Trump said, referring to a gang. “He said, ‘They’re nothing compared to my guys. Nothing.’ And that’s what you need. Sometimes that’s what you need, right?”
“I saw some photos where Tom’s guys — rough guys. They’re rough,” Trump added later. “I don’t want to be — say it because they’ll say that’s not politically correct. You’re not allowed to have rough people doing this kind of work.”
A bit later, he made a comment that quickly became infamous.
“When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon — you just see them thrown in, rough — I said, please don’t be too nice,” Trump said, to laughter from the police in attendance. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
This idea that law enforcement should use more force even against those suspected of illegal activity emerged again in 2018. He told agents on the border with Mexico to respond to rocks thrown at them by migrants as though they’d been shot at. He made a similar comment when speaking to governors in a conference call on Monday.
“You don’t have to be too careful,” Trump told the governors, “and you have to do the prosecutions. When someone’s throwing a rock, that’s like shooting a gun. We’ve had a couple of people badly hurt, with no retribution. You have to do retribution, in my opinion.”
Some part of this, obviously, is Trump hoping that the strength and bravery that Americans often attribute to law enforcement will rub off on him personally. But the message Trump sends is clear: handling accused criminals roughly is more important than, say, presuming their innocence.
The administration's loosening of restrictions on the police has not always been explicit. Trump has sent a number of other signals to the police that they have freer rein than in years past.
Some are psychological. Trump’s pardoning of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example, sent an explicit message that law enforcement officials who ignore judicial rulings — as Arpaio did, after being told to stop racially profiling suspects — could be granted clemency. At another point, Trump reportedly told the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection that he would pardon him if he faced criminal charges for denying asylum seekers entry to the United States. Later efforts to minimize the legal risk posed to Trump allies such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn send a tacit message: Political loyalty can overpower the justice system.
Trump’s administration has also explicitly empowered the police. After unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, President Barack Obama added new limits to a program in which local police departments could receive surplus equipment from the military. The month after his speech on Long Island in which he pledged to do so, Trump removed the limits.
In late 2018, another shift was enacted by outgoing attorney general Jeff B. Sessions: imposing new restrictions on consent decrees from the Justice Department. While not specifically written to defang the sorts of decrees in which the department sought to reform local police agencies (like the one in Ferguson), the memo had that effect and, as The Post’s Radley Balko wrote at the time, that intent. As Balko pointed out, Sessions’s tenure began from a position of undercutting federal oversight of police departments.
Trump’s efforts to empower the police pale in comparison to his efforts to secure their support. His frequent avowals at his rallies that he loves the police are a way of building his own political appeal. But he has also repeatedly told police groups directly that he loves them and offers them his loyalty.
“Every day, I will be your greatest and loyal champion,” the president told a police group in Chicago last year. “I’ve done more than any president has done for police.”
He then signed an executive order establishing a commission within the Justice Department that would, among other things, focus on “increas[ing] respect for the law.”
Trump used to frequently tell a story about a New York police officer — a “big, strong guy” — who thanked him for helping his 401(k) grow so quickly that his wife was convinced he was a “genius” at investing. The point of the story generally was that Trump could brag about the economy, however dubiously. But another point, clearly, was for Trump to talk about how much he was doing for rank-and-file officers.
After all, as he will tell anyone who listens, Trump loves the police.