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‘Great Patriots!’: Trump lavishes praise on supporters amid deadly clashes with social justice protesters

Supporters of President Trump attend a rally and car parade in Portland, Ore. (Paula Bronstein/AP)

President Trump on Sunday amplified his call for federal forces to help subdue protests in American cities, denouncing local Democratic leaders and fanning partisan tensions a day after a deadly clash between his supporters and social justice protesters in Portland, Ore., underscored the threat of rising politically motivated violence.

Scenes of Trump faithful firing paint and pellet guns at protesters during a “Trump cruise rally” caravan through downtown Portland — a liberal bastion that has been the site of weeks of street demonstrations — raised the specter that the nation’s summer of unrest had entered a new phase in which the president’s backers are rallying to defend businesses and fight back against Black Lives Matter and other groups he has labeled “anarchists” and “terrorists.”

One man, thought to be a member of a pro-Trump group, was shot and killed Saturday night during the Portland unrest.

One person shot dead in Portland following clashes between pro-Trump supporters, counterprotesters

In tweeting a video of the caravan on the move, Trump called the participants “GREAT PATRIOTS!” The reaction marked a sharp contrast to his silence during a large and peaceful civil rights march on Friday in Washington that drew thousands to the Mall, where some speakers denounced his leadership.

Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) reacted to an Aug. 30 tweet from President Trump, saying, "I don't appreciate it when you tell me how to do" my job. (Video: AP)

In a statement Sunday afternoon, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden “unequivocally” condemned the Portland shooting and accused Trump of “fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters.”

“We must not become a country at war with ourselves; a country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you; a country that vows vengeance toward one another,” Biden said. “But that is the America that President Trump wants us to be, the America he believes we are.”

The violence has escalated as Trump has seized on the social justice protests as a campaign wedge, attempting to tie Biden to “radical” elements on the left. Eager to shift the political debate from the rising deaths and economic toll of the pandemic, Trump has relentlessly attacked Democratic mayors and governors for failing to quell protests, and he dispatched federal law enforcement authorities into cities to help arrest demonstrators.

Police in Portland, Ore., were investigating Aug. 30 a fatal shooting that took place amid clashes between supporters of President Trump and counterprotesters. (Video: The Washington Post)

This week, both Trump and Biden will move to address the protests in a more prominent way. Trump on Tuesday is set to travel to Kenosha, Wis., where the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black resident left paralyzed, provoked street protests that culminated in the shooting deaths of two others. Kyle Rittenhouse, a White 17-year-old who had illegally obtained a rifle, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the killings, which came after a fledgling militia group had posted a call to arms on Facebook.

In Kenosha, Jacob Blake’s shooting deepens long-standing resentments and fears

White House aides said Trump will tour property damage and meet with law enforcement officials, but they did not disclose any plans for the president to meet with Blake’s family.

Meanwhile, Biden aides said the candidate, who had maintained a lean campaign schedule, will launch a more robust public presence with a speech in southwestern Pennsylvania on Monday to address Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his response to the social justice protests.

Trump aides, including White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, asserted recently that the violence and chaos will help his reelection bid.

“The only people to blame for the violence and riots in our streets are liberal politicians and their incompetent policies that have failed to get control of these destructive situations,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “This President has condemned violence in all its forms. Americans want peace in their streets and for their children to grow up in safe neighborhoods, and only President Trump has shown the courage and leadership to achieve law and order and deliver results.”

Trump’s conservative supporters, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have seized on Rittenhouse as a figure of sympathy, suggesting that he acted legally and in self-defense. The president on Sunday appeared to offer his support by liking a tweet from a self-described former liberal activist who cited Rittenhouse as a reason to vote for Trump.

Conservatives also rallied around the Trump caravan in Portland, where the man who was killed was wearing a hat bearing the words “Patriot Prayer,” the name of a far-right group organized in 2016 to bring pro-Trump rallies to liberal strongholds.

In a tweet, Trump referred to Biden as a “puppet” of “crazed leaders” on the left who envision the Portland chaos as emblematic of “Joe Biden’s America.”

“This is not what our great Country wants,” Trump wrote. “They want Safety & Security, and do NOT want to Defund our Police!”

Biden has stated that he does not support efforts of some liberals to drastically cut funding for local police departments and instead has outlined a proposal that would increase funding for community policing programs by $300 million as long as local departments agree to conditions such as adopting new use-of-force standards and increasing diversity among their ranks.

In recent months, Trump has increasingly used official White House events, along with campaign rallies, to vilify protesters as violent and to fan fears along racial lines.

During his renomination acceptance speech, delivered Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House for the Republican National Convention, Trump attacked Biden for failing to condemn “rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities” even though the former vice president had already spoken out against the violence and looting, saying the day before that “violence that endangers lives, violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community — that’s wrong.”

“Trump has been inciting violence for years and with deadly effects,” said author Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who studies authoritarian regimes. She pointed to a mass shooting in El Paso last summer by a gunman who cited anti-immigrant views with echoes of Trump’s rhetoric in a manifesto.

In 2018, Cesar Sayoc, a Trump supporter, mailed inoperative pipe bombs to Trump’s critics, a crime for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. And in 2017, a white nationalist in Charlottesville drove a car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer as she protested the extremist “Unite the Right” march — a movement the president failed to condemn unequivocally.

“Now he’s trained his aim on Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa,” said Ben-Ghiat, referring to a loosely connected set of left-wing, anti-fascist groups. “So what is happening now with an escalation of violence is something beneficial to Trump. Strongmen leaders incite crises so they can pose themselves as the law-and-order solution.”

Biden, who has sought to make Trump’s handling of the novel coronavirus the focus of the election, is facing pressure from some Democrats to speak more forcefully on racial justice issues. While Biden has not outlined a clear course of action for what he would do as president to deal with protests that include violence or looting, he said last month that local authorities should arrest agitators who break the law.

“Joe Biden is not president. These things are happening now,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said in an interview. Of Trump, Clyburn said: “How are you going to look at what’s happening under your tenure and say this is what would happen with Joe Biden as your president? You are the president.”

Homeland security experts said the combustible mix of sharply polarized and ideologically minded agitators mixing on the streets in cities where law enforcement authorities are strained and, in some cases, inadequately trained is a recipe for potential violence.

“It’s important for government leaders at all levels to calm everyone and keep political rallies peaceful,” said Tom Warrick, an Atlantic Council expert who left government service last year after serving as a career official at the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

“The problem is that things can quickly get out of control and the uncertainty and chaos become weapons in the fight,” Warrick said. “Merely the uncertainty that it will take days, or weeks, to sort out something that’s happening in itself becomes a tool for division of the country, rather than the unity.”

On Sunday morning, officials with binders bearing the presidential insignia joined members of the Secret Service and Kenosha police on a heavily damaged block in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. As Secret Service members scouted alleys and various vantage points, White House staffers discussed the feasibility of Trump visiting the burned-out section of 22nd Avenue near 61st Street.

One building the White House advance team was surveying was the home of the Danish Brotherhood, a secular fraternal organization that had been reduced to an ashen husk of brick and metal. A 71-year-old member of the organization was assaulted while trying to defend the building with a fire extinguisher on Monday during the protests.

A friend said the man was hospitalized, his jaw broken.

Klemko reported from Kenosha.