The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s bunker retreat crystallizes his AWOL response to George Floyd unrest

President Trump enters the White House Rose Garden on Friday. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)

A new poll from The Washington Post and ABC News on Sunday carries plenty of grim news for President Trump. But as has often been the case, voters still viewed him as being relatively good on one particular measure: leadership. Although voters favor presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to Trump overall by 10 percentage points, just 43 percent view Biden as a “strong leader,” while 50 percent say the same of Trump.

It’s not a stretch to say Trump may be squandering this advantage right now.

His relative silence on the protests and riots nationwide in recent days has been conspicuous enough. Trump has yet to address the nation in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, the black man killed in police custody last week in Minneapolis. The president didn’t take questions at what was billed as a news conference Friday afternoon, and no public events are on his schedule Monday.

But now we find out that, as the unrest roiled Washington over the weekend, Trump retreated to the White House bunker. The Washington Post has confirmed this report from the New York Times:

Inside the White House, the mood was bristling with tension. Hundreds of protesters were gathering outside the gates, shouting curses at President Trump and in some cases throwing bricks and bottles. Nervous for his safety, Secret Service agents abruptly rushed the president to the underground bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks.
The scene on Friday night, described by a person with firsthand knowledge, kicked off an uneasy weekend at the White House as demonstrations spread after the brutal death of a black man in police custody under a white officer’s knee. While in the end officials said they were never really in danger, Mr. Trump and his family have been rattled by protests near the Executive Mansion that turned violent for a third night on Sunday.

The Associated Press also reports that “the president and his family have been shaken by the size and venom of the crowds,” and that “Trump has told advisers he worries about his safety.”

We don’t yet know the full circumstances of all this, and the reporting suggests that the Secret Service made the bunker decision.

But Trump complied, and the optics of it are remarkable. It would be one thing for this to happen after he had been proactively dealing with the crisis and speaking out; it’s quite another for it to come as he has been strongly criticized for his hands-off approach to one of the most serious cases of unrest across the country in recent decades.

Trump’s approach has earned opposition even from many of his erstwhile allies. The Daily Wire, a conservative website, ran a headline Monday morning from a frequent Trump defender that read, “Trump Silent As Nation Burns From Violent Riots.”

Ann Coulter, who wrote a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” tweeted, “Is it possible Trump has resigned and they just haven’t gotten around to the press release?”

Conservative radio host Michael Savage, whom Trump recently gave a presidential appointment, tweeted late Sunday night, “President TRUMP is sequestered in the WHITE HOUSE BUNKER! This is REVOLUTION..WHERE IS OUR GOVERNMENT?”

Trump’s response to the crisis has been to tweet and do little else. But as The Post’s Philip Rucker reports, most of those tweets have simply added fuel to the fire. He has attacked mayors and local officials, labeled those protesting near the White House “THUGS” and threatened them with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” said he will label Antifa a terrorist organization, and praised his decision to deploy the National Guard to a number of states.

But the White House has apparently made a calculated decision that Trump speaking out publicly is to be avoided:

Trump and some of his advisers calculated that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing new to say and had no tangible policy or action to announce yet, according to a senior administration official. Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.

The explanation is … something? Even if there is no new policy or action to announce, reassuring words about how everyone is handling this would seem appropriate — indeed, almost perfunctory — for a president on the occasion. What seem to be irreconcilable racial tensions have risen to the surface again, and Trump doesn’t even seem to want to attempt a reconciliation.

But the idea that Trump speaking out wouldn’t help is a very logical conclusion. You only need to look at what happened during the last major racial flash point in his administration: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Trump took it as an occasion to argue that there were good people “on both sides” — despite a self-proclaimed white supremacist having killed a protester and the rally having been arranged by racists. Trump has also stood by his claim that the Central Park Five are guilty, despite their exoneration, and he at one point suggested that the four members of the Squad — three of whom were born in this country and all of whom are congresswomen of color — should “go back” to their countries. His tweet about “THUGS” and invocation of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a phrase with a clear and ugly history — are the latest examples.

Trump’s inclination in times such as this is just as it is in peaceful times: to provoke the other side and rally his base. The idea that he could provide a healing address to the country even if he wanted to seems far-fetched. He can sometimes stay on message for a period of time, but as Charlottesville showed, it’s never for long.

But the longer Trump stays silent, the more that cold reality will set in and the more conspicuous it will become. And retreating to a White House bunker in the midst of all of it is hardly a picture of leadership. It’s the kind of thing, in fact, that can crystallize a very unhelpful narrative for a man who has otherwise tried (in some ways successfully) to make strength his calling card.