President Trump on Monday berated the nation’s governors during a conference call, describing them as “weak” in the face of growing racial unrest and urging them to take an aggressive stand against unruly protests.
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” he said. “They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
The Washington Post obtained a recording of the call.
Trump followed up on the forceful rhetoric to the governors in a Rose Garden announcement later Monday evening, warning that he will dispatch the U.S. military to end the unrest in cities across the country if mayors and governors don’t escalate their law enforcement presence, including the National Guard.
“We are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country,” Trump said as the sounds of flash bangs echoed in the Rose Garden. “We will end it now.”
The announcement, as well as the conversation with governors, followed nights of unrest and mass protests in cities across the country over the death of another black man in police custody, George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Many of the protests have featured violent clashes with police, as well as the destruction of private property and looting.
Trump has faced criticism from liberals and conservatives for remaining mostly silent on the issue beyond his Twitter account, where he has at times sent out messages that were more inflammatory than calming during the unrest.
The president struck a belligerent tone during the call, frequently urging governors to get tougher and use the National Guard if protesters begin to damage property or loot stores.
Trump told the governors that “you have to use the military” and “we have a wonderful military.” He also mused about the Occupy Wall Street movement, calling it a “disgrace” that was ended by governors and mayors being tough.
The president said that people arrested at the protests should serve 10-year prison sentences.
“But you’ve got to arrest people, you have to try people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, then you’ll never see this stuff again,” he said. “And you have to let them know that.”
At the call’s outset, Trump noted that Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also present and that the president had “just put him in charge” of managing the unrest in dozens of cities.
At a briefing later in the day, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to offer details on Milley’s role or say why a top military leader would be in charge of overseeing domestic law enforcement issues.
“I’m not going to get ahead of any actions that will be announced,” she said.
On the call, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper explained to governors that about 70,000 National Guard troops had been activated in 29 states but that most of the states using them had fewer than 200 of them deployed. Esper underscored the president’s words, saying “we need to dominate the battle space.”
“I think the sooner that you . . . dominate the battle space, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper told governors.
Trump noted that he would also “activate” Attorney General William P. Barr, who on Monday directed the FBI to send riot teams to Miami and Washington, according to a senior Justice Department official. On Sunday night, Barr sent the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team to assist local police.
The call with governors grew contentious at times.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) challenged Trump about his rhetoric after the president, early in the call, derided the governors, telling them that “most of you are weak.” The president replied that he does not like Pritzker’s rhetoric, either, and that Pritzker mishandled his state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am extraordinarily concerned about the rhetoric that has been used by you,” Pritzker told Trump. “We have to call for calm, we have to have police reform called for. . . . The rhetoric coming out of the White House is making it worse.”
Trump was quick to defend his remarks, noting that he spoke about Floyd’s death “at our great rocket launch” Saturday in Florida even before he commended the successful liftoff of the SpaceX rocket, the event that brought him to Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“We just sent out a billion-dollar rocket, and before I spoke about the rocket at a major speech after the rocket launch I spoke as to what happened with respect to Mr. Floyd,” Trump said. “I thought it was a disgrace. I thought what happened was a disgrace. I spoke about it probably as long as I did about the rocket itself.”
The call and Trump’s handling of the nationwide unrest triggered another battle on Monday with Democratic governors, who have been a frequent target of the president’s during the coronavirus pandemic. Some Democratic governors publicly criticized Trump.
“The president repeatedly and viciously attacked governors, who are doing everything they can to keep the peace while fighting a once-in-a-generation global pandemic,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said in a statement following the call. “The president’s dangerous comments should be gravely concerning to all Americans, because they send a clear signal that this administration is determined to sow the seeds of hatred and division, which I fear will only lead to more violence and destruction. We must reject this way of thinking.”
Other governors defended Trump and his administration’s call to more aggressively deploy the National Guard. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said on the call that National Guard troops were present at protests in Charleston and that “it worked like a charm.”
“They had five Humvees rolling around the city of Charleston, very peaceful,” McMaster said. “So strength works. You have to dominate, as you said. I think now is really the time to get serious prosecuting these people, finding out where their organizations are, who is paying the money.”
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills of Maine, where Trump is slated to visit later this week, also raised concerns about security surrounding the president’s trip. Trump quipped later in the call that it seemed the governor was trying to talk him out of visiting Maine “and now she probably talked me into it.”
“She just doesn't understand me very well. But that’s okay,” Trump said of Mills.
Meanwhile, Trump did have warm words for some Democrats on the call, praising Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) for his use of the National Guard over the past couple of nights.
When someone made a comment about the Minnesota response looking like an occupying force, Trump said that after the recent violence, “people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force.”
He added that the first phase of the response in Minneapolis was “weak and pathetic.” The National Guard phase was “domination. . . . It couldn’t be any better. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”
McEnany pushed back against criticism that Trump should deliver an address to the nation to try to calm the unrest, noting he addressed Floyd’s killing during remarks Saturday in Florida, where he was on hand to witness the launch of U.S. astronauts into space.
Trump made the same argument during the call.
The president’s combative tone in the call with governors — as well as his tweets over the weekend — marked a stark contrast with other senior Republicans, even though they, like Trump, also condemned the sometimes violent and destructive aspect of the demonstrations.
“One nation cannot deafen itself to the anger, pain or frustration of black Americans,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech Monday afternoon. “Our nation needs to hear this. Yet over the last several days, citizens have watched with horror as cities across America have convulsed with looting, riots and destruction.”
McConnell added: “You do not advance peace by committing assault. You do not advance justice by inflicting injustice upon your neighbors.”
Trump struck a more measured tone during remarks Saturday in Cape Canaveral — when he said “healing, not hatred, justice, not chaos, are the mission at hand” — a tone that also stood in contrast to many of his tweets, which were more inflammatory.
“I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe,” the president tweeted Saturday morning about protests outside the White House on Friday night. “They let the ‘protesters’ scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard — didn’t know what hit them. . . . Nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
The protests grew so heated Friday night outside the White House that the Secret Service rushed the president to an underground bunker previously used during terrorist attacks, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of security for the president.
Early last month, Trump rooted on people protesting public health restrictions put in place by governors in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He expressed support on May 1 for armed protesters who had stormed the Michigan Capitol, demanding the state lift coronavirus restrictions. Trump tweeted Friday that “these are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!”
Matt Zapotosky and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.