Since signing an executive action on police changes on June 16 in the Rose Garden, Trump has shifted almost exclusively to “law-and-order” rhetoric — while dropping almost any pretense of personally addressing the widespread public anger over police brutality that has sparked nationwide demonstrations.
The president’s posture comes as he has sought to energize his conservative political base in response to polls that show diminishing public approval over his handling of both the racial justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic. After framing his police executive action as an effort to balance the interests of victims’ families and police officers, Trump has sided squarely with the law enforcement community, reinforcing widespread skepticism about his commitment to addressing complaints of racial bias and systemic abuses in police departments that have harmed African Americans.
“There are certain things I’ve accepted about Donald Trump,” said Lee Merritt, the attorney for more than half a dozen black families that met with the president at the White House ahead of his Rose Garden announcement. “Part of it is that he is always going to favor his base, which is law enforcement and law enforcement-aligned individuals.”
Amid the nationwide debate that erupted after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis last month, Merritt added, Trump “needed to be involved in that conversation, but it goes contrary to everything he’s said before with regard to policing.”
White House aides insisted that Trump has not given up on the executive actions he outlined to establish federal certification standards on police training, create a national database to track police abuse cases and pair law enforcement agencies with social workers when responding in communities.
The administration has been coordinating with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is leading the Senate GOP’s legislative proposals, although that effort has clashed with a competing package from House Democrats that includes more expansive police changes.
Ja’Ron Smith, a White House domestic policy aide, said on Fox Business this week that Trump was right to threaten protesters who have torn down monuments because “we’ve got to have a civil conversation and a civil society and a nation of laws. . . . This right here is lawlessness and anarchy, and it doesn’t represent the people in the community.”
Smith, who helped develop Trump’s executive actions along with senior adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, said that the administration “will do all we can do administratively,” including using convening power to “bring both sides together.”
Trump aides said the president has expressed support for peaceful protesters and empathy for Floyd on multiple occasions, but the most recent example in a list provided by the White House was June 5.
Over the past 11 days, Trump has lashed out against demonstrators repeatedly, and he changed a photo on his Twitter profile to one of him posing with 33 uniformed police officers in front of Air Force One.
Ahead of a campaign rally in Tulsa last weekend, he suggested in a tweet that “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” would be treated more strictly in the Republican-led city than in New York, Seattle or Minneapolis, jurisdictions run by Democrats.
He slammed New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to have artists paint “Black Lives Matter” in front of Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, saying New York police “are furious.”
And after police thwarted an attempt to topple the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square next to the White House last Monday, Trump declared that “numerous people are in jail and going to jail today.” He also said he had authorized 10-year prison terms for “these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and these agitators.”
Yet in his eagerness to project toughness, Trump exaggerated the state of affairs. In fact, authorities made a combined four arrests that day — none in direct connection with damaging the Jackson statue.
D.C. police arrested two men accused of spraying officers with a fire extinguisher. And U.S. Park Police arrested two others who allegedly punched officers during skirmishes as the federal officers sought to clear the area of protesters. But the U.S. attorney’s office in the District, led by a Trump appointee, did not pursue criminal charges against the latter two men.
“The last time I checked, the executive branch doesn’t make law,” said attorney Mark L. Goldstone, who represents them. “President Trump can tweet all he wants about ‘lock them up,’ but the reality is he doesn’t make the criminal code. Someone needs to teach him a constitutional lesson.”
In a town hall-style event with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Thursday, Trump asserted that federal authorities had made hundreds of arrests since the protests began. In fact, authorities have charged about 125 people with federal crimes, according to a Justice Department tally released Friday afternoon.
Trump cited a recent spate of community violence in Chicago and told Hannity that city is more dangerous than Afghanistan. He said living in Baltimore; Oakland, Calif.; and Detroit is “like living in hell.”
And he touted the “stop-and-frisk” policing policies established two decades ago in New York City by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, now Trump’s personal lawyer. Liberals denounced those policies, which were ended in 2014, as unfairly targeting black residents, and Mike Bloomberg, who succeeded Giuliani, apologized during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year for having expanded the program.
“President Trump will always stand for law and order — which is the only way to ensure peace on our streets,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews said in a statement. She accused Democrats of “calling for defunding our brave police officers, caving to mob rule, and promoting cancel culture which seeks to erase our history. The president speaks for Americans who want safety and security to prevail.”
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said he believes Trump has tried to strike a balance on police reform. Cosme was among a handful of law enforcement officials who stood next to Trump in the Rose Garden when he signed the executive order in mid-June. The officials also attended the private meeting that day between the president and the black families represented by Merritt.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I saw a different side of the president,’” Cosme said. “He was sympathetic to these folks. He listened.”
Cosme said his organization, which is nonpolitical, supports peaceful protests, “but you have to follow the law.” However, the scenes of violence have frightened law-abiding demonstrators, he added.
“Overall, the message that all politicians should be putting out is the safety for the American public number one, along with being sympathetic to folks who feel victimized,” Cosme said.
Merritt confirmed Trump appeared sympathetic in private, and he said the president instructed Attorney General William P. Barr to determine if federal intervention was necessary in their cases. Merritt said he maintains hope that Trump will ultimately support broader legislative reforms, citing his efforts to help push a criminal justice reform bill through Congress in 2018.
“That’s a possibility, although it’s unlikely,” Merritt said. If not, Trump and his aides “would then be exposed for being hypocritical and being liars and taking advantage of those most affected by police brutality by taking a meeting just to say he met with them. That would be more politically dangerous than he knows.”
An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect name for the attorney representing two men arrested during protests in the District. He is Mark L. Goldstone.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.