President Trump has not done so. The Washington Post reported late Sunday that this was in part because he wasn’t ready to.
“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,” our Philip Rucker reported.
There’s almost nothing that Trump could say. He has no experience in attempting to appeal to audiences other than his core base of political support. He has never demonstrated any interest in doing so.
He insists that he has, of course. He presents his approach to governing as one in which he seeks unity. But he has consistently made clear what that unity looks like: Americans uniting around and respecting him as their leader. He has sporadically embraced bipartisan policies, but generally when he views them as politically useful. Far more often, he’s focused on delivering policies and personnel that conservatives sought. His measurement of the success of his presidency, for example, generally includes mention of how many conservative judges he has had confirmed — a measure that explicitly appeals only to his political base.
Trump won the presidency by taking the same approach. His primary campaign in 2016 was focused specifically on echoing sentiments common in conservative media that operated outside the bounds of standard Republican rhetoric — in part because they were considered too polarizing. During the general election campaign, he was expected and advised to move toward more moderate positions, but he didn’t. He continued to focus on appealing to conservatives and narrowly won the White House. He took a lesson from that: He knew more than the experts about how to win. In the three years since, he has deployed the same strategy.
In this case, even if he wanted to attempt to bridge the widening gulf in the country, the central issue of the protests — racial justice — is one on which he’s particularly poorly prepared to offer a steadying voice. His 2016 campaign heavily leveraged the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and isolated attacks on police to argue that the United States was in an unusually dangerous moment demanding his strength. Many of his voters agreed with that position and with skepticism of the BLM movement.
Trump’s history on racial issues, though, extends back far longer, including his vocal support for reintroducing the death penalty in New York in response to a brutal attack in Central Park. The young black and Hispanic men arrested in that case for whom Trump sought the death penalty were later exonerated, although Trump in 2016 nonetheless insisted upon their guilt.
The ancillary violence and vandalism that has erupted as part of the protests similarly positions Trump poorly for a response, given his well-established hard-line position. Having invested so much energy in urging local leaders to respond to protests with an iron fist, what moderated message could he conceivably send? This is inconsistent with his 2014 criticism of President Barack Obama for his handling of the smaller protests that emerged following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., but such inconsistencies rarely give Trump pause.
Even if he spoke, would anyone listen? Trump is broadly viewed as untrustworthy by the American public, as he has been since the 2016 campaign. He was elected not because of public confidence but despite public skepticism. Those who consider him trustworthy are primarily members of his existing political base, the group toward which he targets most of his communications anyway. With that group, his tendency to speak vaguely and with built-in deniability is often not an issue.
Speaking to the nation overall demands a commitment to consistency that isn't something many immediately associate with Trump. You may recall his last speech to the public, offered in early March as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading. Trump made significant misstatements, including about trade with Europe, that demanded a quick cleanup effort after the fact.
Another group that views him as trustworthy are viewers of Fox News Channel. Speaking on the network on Monday morning, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the need for a national speech.
“A national Oval Office address is not going to stop antifa,” she said, referring to a loosely organized group of demonstrators united under an anti-fascist umbrella. The administration has centered on antifa as a primary driver of the unrest, despite limited evidence of the role of self-identified members of the group.
“I think they’re operating based on political considerations, not facts,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said on MSNBC on Monday of Trump blaming antifa for the protests.
Antifa is a useful boogeyman, though, allowing Trump to position the enemy in the moment as “leftists.” It’s comfortable territory for Trump, exhorting Democrats to do more to control their own — as he has implied in recent days — and allowing him to ignore the actual frustrations on display in the protests that have sprung up in scores of cities nationwide.
Trump wants to be viewed as a great president and a great leader. If his public pronouncements are any indicator, it seems likely that he believes to some extent that he is one, that the limits imposed on his popularity are artificial ones from Democrats and the news media. He may think that he could give a speech and be viewed as resolving the immediate tensions of the moment, a speech that would cut through a Gordian knot to simultaneously calm the public and silence his critics.
What he won’t do, what he can’t do, what he has never done is try to find middle ground that softens his own position and accepts the concerns of his political opponents as legitimate and worthy of consideration. Well before he ran for president, Trump’s approach was obstinance in support of his own instincts — an approach that he sees the 2016 results as having validated. As president, he has never acknowledged a mistake and never accepted criticism as warranted.
Trump may give a speech about the current crisis. It may be a speech in which he acknowledges in specific terms the concerns of the black community and articulates viable solutions. It may offer a nuanced balance of the need for public safety with the idea that law enforcement suffers from systemic problems. He may offer some snippet of rhetoric that resonates even with those who view him most skeptically, a bit of rhetoric that joins those from past presidents in the history books as examples of how a president can rise to a moment and lead.
He has given us no reason to expect that he will.