But the event was heavy on symbolism, as the president surrounded himself with uniformed officers and police union officials, a show of solidarity that signaled he was unwilling to risk angering law enforcement communities that he considers a key part of his conservative political base.
Trump said he had met ahead of the ceremony with the families of black people killed by police — including Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Jemel Roberson and others — but they did not join him for his remarks.
“I can never imagine your pain or the depth of your anguish, but I can promise to fight for justice for all of our people,” Trump said, before pivoting to a defense of law enforcement organizations whose tactics have prompted calls from Black Lives Matter and other activists to “defund the police” by reallocating public money to social programs.
“I strongly oppose radical and dangerous efforts to [defund], dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” Trump declared. “Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos; without law, there is anarchy; and without safety, there is catastrophe. We need leaders at every level of government who have the moral clarity to state these obvious facts.”
The politically charged nature of the event was illustrated by criticism from civil rights leaders, skeptical of Trump’s sincerity on the issue, aimed at the families that met with Trump. In response, S. Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing some of the families, posted a photo on Twitter of himself at the White House with the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was fatally shot in February after being pursued by white residents in Brunswick, Ga..
Trump’s remarks came as Congress is wrestling with legislative measures to address the widespread outpouring of anger and frustration amid the protests that have roiled American cities following the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, inMinneapolis last month. House Democrats and Senate Republicans are moving forward with competing proposals, and the two sides appeared to have found little common ground Tuesday, with the president’s executive actions potentially setting a marker for his GOP allies over the limits of what they would accept in a compromise bill.
“Unfortunately, this executive order will not deliver comprehensive meaningful change and accountability in our nation’s police departments that Americans are demanding,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “It’s weak tea.”
White House officials had previewed the executive action a day earlier, and Trump offered few additional details in a 27-minute address that at times took on the tone of a campaign speech. He spent a good portion of his remarks touting his record on the economy, boasting of recent upticks in the stock market, listing what he believes he has done for minority communities and falsely accusing former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, of failing to try to address police brutality.
The president departed the event without taking questions from reporters.
The text of Trump’s order stipulated that Attorney General William P. Barr will be charged with leveraging federal grant funding to encourage local police departments to pursue certifications in newly established “best practices” regarding use-of-force and de-escalation techniques, including the prohibition of chokeholds “except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law.”
Barr also will be tasked with establishing a database to track officers who are fired or resign over misconduct allegations so they are not hired in other jurisdictions. The executive action also calls for the federal government to support efforts to train police officers in handling encounters with those suffering from mental health issues, homelessness and addiction, including the development of “co-responder programs” that would pair local police with social workers.
Trump emphasized that he is willing to work with Congress on additional measures, but his executive actions were lambasted by Democratic leaders who said the president and his Republican allies were tinkering at a time when dramatic reforms are needed.
House Democrats are moving forward with a legislative package that would strictly ban police chokeholds, make it easier for victims of police violence to sue officers and departments, and create a national database of police misconduct.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to advance the bill Wednesday, preparing it for a floor vote next week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking on MSNBC, criticized Trump’s Rose Garden event as “a photo op” and said the executive order “fell sadly and seriously short.” She also faulted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Tuesday rejected the House proposal as a nonstarter and called it “typical Democratic overreach.”
“How many more people have to die from police brutality?” Pelosi said. “And so for the leader of the Senate to say, ‘It’s going nowhere, we don’t want any of that,’ is really disgraceful, and it really ignores the concerns of the American people.”
Senate Republicans are preparing their own package, one that may have some overlap with the Democratic proposal but will likely take a far less aggressive approach.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is leading that effort and was among the lawmakers present at the Rose Garden ceremony, has warned that there remained partisan roadblocks on key issues — including the possibility of overturning a federal court precedent barring individuals from suing police in most instances.
“My understanding is the Democrats have been told that they are not allowed to get on this bill,” Scott said Tuesday of the GOP proposal.
In a signal of skepticism on the left of the Republican effort, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — an influential umbrella group with close ties to Democratic leaders — told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the present crisis “requires more than tinkering.”
“Proposals for data collection, commissions, body cameras — these are insufficient responses to meet the moment that we find ourselves in, and more people will die,” said Vanita Gupta, a former top Justice Department civil rights official in the Obama administration. “Where we have seen these kinds of nibbling-at-the-edges policies implemented, we continue to grapple with police officers killing African Americans with impunity.”
Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, responded to Trump’s false contention that the Obama administration had not tried to address police brutality by citing consent decrees with local police departments and an Obama executive order to limit the flow of military weapons to municipal police.
She said Trump “has spent the past three years tearing down the very reforms” the previous administration had pursued.
While there have been some bipartisan discussions, according to members and aides familiar with the talks, there is no formal effort to write a bipartisan bill underway. That has raised fears that the effort could end in a “side-by-side” outcome where Republicans and Democrats each present their own packages, with neither having the necessary support to be signed into law.
At the White House, however, Trump defended the police, pointing to a “tiny” number of bad officers, and he reiterated his desire for states to use the National Guard to disrupt protests if they turn violent or include looting.
“Americans want law and order. They demand law and order,” Trump said. “They may not say it, they may not be talking about it, but that’s what they want.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.