Trump’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview taped Thursday in Dallas, where Trump held a roundtable discussion on race relations and policing. Portions of the interview were aired by the cable station Thursday night, while other portions aired Friday.
In a segment aired Friday, Trump said he thinks outlawing chokeholds is “generally” a good idea but expressed concerns about officers who might engage in a one-on-one “scuffle” in which such a maneuver might be hard to avoid. He also said he hadn’t purposely decided to hold a campaign rally next week in Tulsa on Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
Trump’s comments about the church photo op came hours after Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized for appearing alongside the president at St. John’s Episcopal Church minutes after federal authorities forcibly removed mostly peaceful protesters from the area. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who also participated in the photo opportunity, has said he did not realize in advance what would be happening.
Asked whether he thinks such concerns are “significant,” Trump replied, “No, I don’t think so.”
“I mean, if that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine,” Trump told Fox News’s Harris Faulkner. “I have good relationships with the military. I’ve rebuilt our military. . . . When we took it over from President Obama and Biden, the military was a joke.”
Ahead of the June 1 photo opportunity, Milley, wearing combat fatigues, and Esper walked behind Trump and a cadre of presidential aides from the White House and across Lafayette Square to the historic church. The president then stood in front of it and posed for photographs holding up a Bible.
Milley said in a prerecorded graduation speech to students at the National Defense University on Thursday that it was important to keep “a keen sense of situational awareness” and that he had failed to do so.
“As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said. “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Asked about chokeholds — which Democrats are seeking to ban nationally — Trump said that he doesn’t like them and thinks they should be “generally” barred. He said that could be done at the local level or through some “strong recommendations” federally.
But he voiced some reservations.
“Sometimes if you’re alone, and you’re fighting somebody, it’s tough,” said Trump, raising the specter of an officer being involved with “a real bad person.”
“You get somebody in a chokehold,” he said. “What are you going to do now? Let go and say, ‘Let’s start all over again, I’m not allowed to have you in a choke hold.’ It’s a tough situation.”
In another segment that aired Friday, Trump said no when asked if his campaign rally planned for June 19 in Tulsa was set on that date on purpose.
June 19, known as Juneteenth, is a date commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Tulsa is the site of one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history: a 1921 massacre in which a white mob killed dozens of black people and destroyed black-owned businesses.
Democrats have accused Trump of sending the wrong message with the timing of the rally.
“Think about it as a celebration. My rallies are celebrations,” Trump said. “In the history of politics, I think I can say, there’s never been any group or any person that’s had rallies like I do. . . .The fact I’m having a rally on that day you can really think about that very positively.”
During the interview, Trump also asserted that, “I think I’ve done more for the black community than any other president.”
“And let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, ’cause he did good, though it’s always questionable, you know,” Trump added.
At that point, Faulkner, who is African American, noted that, “Well, we are free, Mr. President.”
“You understand what I mean,” Trump said, before citing a criminal justice bill passed during his tenure and claiming he had not received enough credit for it.
At another point in the interview, Trump defended his tweet in response to recent unrest in Minneapolis that included the phrase “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” He said the phrase does not necessarily imply a threat, as many people saw it.
“It means two things, very different things,” Trump said. “One is, if there’s looting, there’s probably going to be shooting, and that’s not as a threat, that’s really just a fact, because that’s what happens. And the other is, if there’s looting, there’s going to be shooting. They’re very different meanings.”
Missy Ryan and Allyson Chiu contributed to this report.