Yet again, the White House says, President Trump is being taken out of context. After audio leaked of his phone call with governors Monday, the media played up Trump repeatedly urging the police and military to “dominate” in response to the unrest nationwide.
Except that doesn’t totally fit with what Trump said. Nor does it accord with what would happen in Lafayette Square outside the White House just a few hours later.
The president did talk broadly on the call about dominating the streets and legal prosecutions, and he didn’t explicitly advocate cracking skulls or anything like that. But throughout the call were allusions to heavy-handed policing tactics, the word “fight” and war metaphors.
“If you want to say, ‘Oh, let’s not call up the [National] Guard,’ ‘Oh, let’s call up 200 people’ — you’ve got a big National Guard out there that is ready to come in and fight like hell,” he said.
He made the same point later: “They’re are ready, willing and able. They want to fight for the country.”
The call included many comparisons to war. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper repeatedly talked about dominating not just the streets, but also the “battlespace.”
Trump at one point even spoke approvingly about the idea of having an “occupying force.” When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) urged people to make clear the National Guard wasn’t an “occupying force” — but they are, in fact, people’s neighbors — Trump said he would have liked to have one.
“I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force,” Trump said. “I wish we had an occupying force in there.”
He compared the organizing going on by the rioters to an opponent preparing for war.
“It’s like we’re talking about a war — which is a war in a certain sense,” he said. “And we’re going to end it fast.”
Trump also suggested that rocks and bricks should be treated like firearms.
“You know, when somebody’s throwing a rock, that’s like shooting a gun,” he said. “What’s the difference between having a brick that weighs 10 pounds hit somebody in the face and wipe them out practically? We had a couple people badly hurt, and there’s no retribution. So you have to do retribution, in my opinion.”
In this case, Trump quickly suggested “retribution” would mean prosecution rather than force. But at another point, he made clear he was advocating force as a response.
“They have bricks and rocks, big rocks, and they have other things and they throw them. You know, you’re allowed to fight back,” Trump said. “You don’t have to have a brick hit you in the face and you don’t do anything about it. You are allowed to fight back."
Even at this moment, Trump seemed to understand that he was wading into dicey waters.
“Now, I’m not asking my attorney general — perhaps he’ll stop me from saying that — but I would think that if a brick is from somebody and it hits him or maybe if it doesn’t hit him, your very tough, strong, powerful people are allowed to fight back against that guy — and very strongly, apparently,” Trump said. “That’s what I think.”
Trump also made comments similar to remarks he made in 1990 about Tiananmen Square. Back then, he hailed the “strength” of China being able to put down protests quickly. On Monday, Trump offered similar remarks about the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zucotti Park in New York City in 2011.
“And then one day somebody said, 'That’s enough. You get ‘em out of here within two hours,’ ” Trump said. “And it was, it was bedlam for an hour, and then after that everything was beautiful. And that was the last time we heard about it.”
Trump added at another point: “Go back and study Occupy Wall Street, 'cause you’ll see the way that ended was a thing of beauty. Everybody said, ‘I can’t believe how easy it was.’ It was an hour of bedlam. But when it was all over, it was a beautiful thing. And that’s the way it has to end for you.”
With Trump repeatedly pushing for more prosecutions — and even prison sentences of up to 10 years — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) suggested that might not be a cure-all. Some people, he said, would earn bonuses from organizers if they were arrested, and they were actually offering themselves up to police.
“I think we have to be careful, but we have to be tough,” McMaster said.
Trump cut in: “You don’t have to be too careful."
In sum, the call was like a lot of what Trump says. He sprinkled in allusions to prosecutions and gave himself plausible deniability, but he also was clearly alluding to not just a bigger police and military presence, but a more aggressive one.
Even Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker indicated he thought Trump’s point was clear.
“I heard what the president said today about ‘dominating’ and ‘fighting,' ” Baker said. “I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not.”
Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) gets emotional when talking about Trump's calls to "dominate" protesters: "When the country needed compassion ... it was simply nowhere to be found.” pic.twitter.com/M9LIzdgPUj— The Recount (@therecount) June 1, 2020
If there was any doubt about what Trump’s true posture was on this, you only need to look at what came a few hours after the call with governors. At the president’s direction, federal authorities used force, rubber bullets and flash bangs to clear what had been, by most accounts, a peaceful protest in Lafayette Square, so Trump could walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Words are one thing; setting the tone for law enforcement is another. And Trump used both to send some pretty clear signals Monday about how he wants this all to proceed.