Days after demonstrators began filling the centers of cities to protest racial injustice and police violence, Trump offered his most direct address to them. Here’s what he said Saturday, the day of the SpaceX rocket launch.
The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy. It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger and grief. Yesterday, I spoke to George’s family and expressed the sorrow of our entire nation for their loss. I stand before you as a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace and I stand before you in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack and menace. Healing, not hatred, justice, not chaos, are the mission at hand.
Those remarks were his lengthiest and most thoughtful on the protesters’ motivations. But they were delivered at an event where he came for another purpose, amid lots of other news. The following day, Trump decided not to address the nation on the protests, but eventually he did. But in those and other remarks since, Trump has emphasized the destruction of property and the need to take action against bad actors. He has taken jabs at Democratic mayors and governors and associated the protesters with antifa, short for antifascists, and the “radical left."
Trump has had several opportunities to demonstrate that he understands the frustration among black Americans that led to this moment. But a close look at his responses shows that he would prefer to talk about other aspects of the protests.
In his White House remarks before his now famous walk to a nearby church for a photo op, Trump spoke for about 40 seconds before he got to the “but”:
All Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd. My administration is fully committed that for George and his family, justice will be served. He will not have died in vain. But we cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.
Trump sat for an interview Wednesday with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on his Newsmax program. Trump dodged a question about supporting police reforms that could help lower the number of incidents like the one in which George Floyd was killed. His response was to attack Biden.
Spicer: You’ve been very tough on crime. You’ve sent the National Guard out this week. There’s a lot of people that want to know if police reforms will help the systemic racism issues that many black people face in this country. Is that something that you could get behind?Trump: Well, I heard Biden talking about systemic racism in the police department today, and I said, very simple question. He’s been there for 43 years. Why didn’t he do something about it? I’ve only been doing this for three and a half years. He’s been there for 43, 44 years. He was there eight years as vice president.He had plenty of time. I mean, he was taking a lot of vacations, taking it easy, sending his son over to China to pick up $1.5 billion, sending him to Ukraine where he’s paid $83,000 a month, and $3 million upfront or something. I would tell you, why — he had plenty of time. Why wouldn’t you do this? This is “Sleepy Joe.”But now, he’s talking about systemic racism in the police department. Why wouldn’t he have done something about it, Sean? He had all the time. So now he says, I’m going to stop — he’s had 43 years. He was a senator, in all fairness, it’s a very big position. You could do what you want to do. But then, he was vice president for eight years.He hasn’t done anything except things that were bad for the black population, very bad. African American population was treated very badly by Biden. He didn’t know it and he doesn’t know it now, honestly, because I don’t think he knows where he is.
Also on Wednesday, Trump was a guest on Brian Kilmeade’s Fox News radio show. Kilmeade asked Trump to address policing issues. There, he responded to say how badly the media had treated him.
KILMEADE: How do you handle the law enforcement part of this?TRUMP: They have to get better than what they've been doing. I mean obviously that was a terrible thing. And I've spoken about it numerous times in various speeches.And what’s interesting is I spoke about it when we launched a very successful rocket — a tremendous program that culminated on that day and obviously it goes on from there.But I then made a speech and it was a speech about the rocket, and I devoted 25 percent of the speech probably to what happened — or more — to what happened with respect to George — George Floyd, and it was — and then you listen to this, he doesn’t talk about George Floyd. The rocket went off, I then I made a speech, and I talked about George Floyd, but they said he didn’t talk about George Floyd.Half — maybe even almost half of the speech, but a large portion of the speech was devoted exactly to that. And so, you know, with — with the media you basically — and basically no matter what you do, it’s never going to be good enough. But the people understand it.
In his Friday news conference, Trump revisited the issue of policing — after he lauded the National Guard and suggested governors call him for help to “dominate the streets.”
“Equal justice under the law must mean that every American receives equal treatment in every encounter with law enforcement, regardless of race, color, gender or creed. They have to receive fair treatment,” Trump said, before remarking about how Floyd must be pleased, and adding of the protests: “It’s really what our Constitution requires, and it’s what our country is all about.”
Trump and his aides have said that he didn’t get credit for the remarks he made Saturday. But that could be because he has yet to deeply engage on the issues that activists want him to acknowledge. And he may have had a point in that Kilmeade interview, that whatever he said would not be sufficient for those protesting, many of whom think he has exacerbated racial tensions. Still, he’s had opportunities to show over the past week that he wants to improve the conditions that led to Floyd’s death, and there’s no reason he couldn’t have spent more time addressing that, as well as relaying his law-and-order message.
Those words, his Twitter feed, and his actions — like having peaceful protesters cleared outside of the White House — show how Trump ranks the issues he wants to address.
All that just reinforces the idea that Trump is a poor leader on race relations and could be more interested in ignoring the issue. In addition to being viewed as divisive by many Americans polled earlier in Trump’s administration, most Americans view the president as a racist, according to a recent Yahoo News-YouGov poll. And while he has repeatedly attempted to push back on that depiction of him, what he has failed to communicate is a basic level of understanding of many of the issues that black Americans face in this country.