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As cities burned, Trump stayed silent — other than tweeting fuel on the fire

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/1/2020 Philip Rucker
a black sign with white text: Members of the U.S. Secret Service stand guard in front of the White House as demonstrators gather nearby on Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd. © Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post Members of the U.S. Secret Service stand guard in front of the White House as demonstrators gather nearby on Saturday to protest the death of George Floyd.

In cities across America on Sunday, people awoke to see shattered glass, charred vehicles, bruised bodies and graffiti-tagged buildings. Demonstrators gathered again in peaceful daytime protest of racial injustice. By evening, thousands had converged again in front of the White House, where people had rioted and set fires the night before.

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President Trump stayed safely ensconced inside and had nothing to say, besides tweeting fuel on the fire.

Never in the 1,227 days of Trump’s presidency has the nation seemed to cry out for leadership as it did Sunday, yet Trump made no attempt to provide it.

That was by design. Trump and some of his advisers calculated that he should not speak to the nation because he had nothing new to say and had no tangible policy or action to announce yet, according to a senior administration official. Evidently not feeling an urgent motivation Sunday to try to bring people together, he stayed silent.

Trump let his tweets speak for themselves. One attacked the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis; another announced that his administration would designate the antifa movement a terrorist organization; a third accused the media of fomenting hatred and anarchy; and in yet another, he praised himself for the deployment of the National Guard and denigrated former vice president Joe Biden.

In one of his missives, Trump wrote, “Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors. These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”

a group of people that are standing in the dark: People protest outside the White House on Saturday. © Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post People protest outside the White House on Saturday.

The United States is visibly, painfully broken by the unprecedented confluence of health, economic and social crises, any one of which alone would test a president. It was extraordinary then to hear some in the public arena suggest Sunday that this president ought stay in the background, arguing that Trump lacked the moral authority and credibility necessary to heal the country.

“He should just stop talking. This is like Charlottesville all over again,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” referring to Trump’s equivocations following a deadly white-supremacist rally in 2017. “He speaks, and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet. And I wish that he would just be quiet.”

This weekend exemplified many of the characteristics that have defined Trump’s five years as a presidential candidate and president — chaos and unrest, fear and anger, division and disruption. Some of these themes and qualities helped draw Trump’s supporters to him and keep them faithful, giving him a chance at reelection in November despite the carnage on his watch this spring.

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Yet these same attributes make it challenging if not impossible for him to inspire unity, according to officials and strategists in both political parties.

It is an open question, too, whether Trump aspires to unite. There is ample evidence that he does not, as he built a political strategy around pitting groups against one another and declaring winners and losers.

“The rioting in the streets has put an exclamation point on what this president cannot do: To bring people around and say we are all in this together,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican official and former attorney general in New Hampshire. “On his automatic transmission, there is one speed. It is not conciliate. It is not comfort. It is not forge consensus. It is attack. And the frustration right now is that nobody is in charge. Anarchy rules.”

a person standing in front of a tree: President Trump and first lady Melania Trump depart Wednesday for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the SpaceX launch, which was later postponed due to weather. © Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post President Trump and first lady Melania Trump depart Wednesday for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch the SpaceX launch, which was later postponed due to weather.

Inside Trump’s political circle, advisers have expressed conflicting views about how Trump should demonstrate leadership after the death of a black man, George Floyd, in the custody of a white police officer sparked outrage nationwide. The president, in consultation with some aides, decided not to give a speech Sunday about the violent protests over what many see as systemic racial injustice by law enforcement.

Some on Trump’s reelection campaign team, as well as some White House staffers, have been pushing for the president to deliver an Oval Office address, and he could decide to do so later in the week. But aides first want him to embark on a listening tour of sorts to develop constructive ideas, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans.

To that end, Trump intends to convene events this week with law enforcement officials, black leaders and other stakeholders, which aides see as opportunities for him to address the unfolding situation and develop policies, some in concert with the Justice Department, the official said.

“We want to be talking about law and order, how we can heal the relationship between the police community and the African American community, and what tangible policy steps we can take, and also try to expose these more organized bad actors that are manipulating this moment of tragedy and turn it into an opportunity to sow discord and distrust,” the official said.

Attorney General William P. Barr signaled aggressive steps to come in apprehending and prosecuting what he called “groups of outside radicals and agitators” and singled out antifa — protesters who describe themselves as antifascists — as responsible for some of the riots.

“It is time to stop watching the violence and to confront and stop it,” Barr said in a statement issued Sunday. “The continued violence and destruction of property endangers the lives and livelihoods of others, and interferes with the rights of peaceful protesters, as well as all other citizens.”

a person flying through the air: Trump speaks to journalists at the White House on Saturday before his trip to Florida. © Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post Trump speaks to journalists at the White House on Saturday before his trip to Florida.

Asked Sunday by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether Trump planned to address the nation, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien replied that the president already had made “very eloquent comments” about Floyd’s death and that he “addresses the country almost every day” on social media or in other ways.

“He’s trying to stop the violence that we saw that took place overnight, and the message to — and it’s a strong message, that we want law and order in this country,” O’Brien said. “We want peaceful protesters who have real concerns about brutality and racism. They need to be able to go to the city hall. They need to be able to petition their government and let their voices be heard. And they can’t be hijacked by these left-wing antifa militants.”

Trump’s record of racially insensitive and sometimes outright racist comments over the years has led many Democrats and even some Republicans to conclude that he does not fully comprehend the nation’s history of racism and the corresponding tensions that live on today.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post) © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“Obviously the unrest and the anger is well justified,” said Al Cardenas, a Florida-based Republican strategist and a former chairman of the American Conservatives Union. “Hardly goes a week by when some white person, whether it’s a white supremacist or a racist law enforcement officer, does not kill a black person needlessly. … What the country needs and wants from the president, they’re not going to get. This president, I don’t believe, relates to the racism, relates to the pain. At least I haven’t seen it.”

During his visit Saturday to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida — where he and Vice President Pence witnessed the successful launch of the SpaceX spacecraft — Trump addressed Floyd’s death and called it “a grave tragedy. It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger and grief.”

The president described himself as “a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace” but said he firmly opposes “anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack, and menace.”

A few hours earlier on Saturday, Trump said on Twitter that demonstrators outside the White House on Friday night were met by Secret Service agents with “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen,” a seeming reference to the law enforcement practices in America’s segregationist past. He said many agents are “just waiting for action” and claimed that one had told him that fighting protesters was “good practice.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) replied to Trump on Twitter by noting that the president “hides behind his fence” and that “there are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone …”

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the nation’s most prominent black Republican elected official, said he has advised the president to focus on Floyd’s death, to recognize the benefit of peaceful protests and to lead with compassion. As for Trump’s tweets Saturday, Scott said on “Fox News Sunday,” “Those are not constructive tweets, without any question.”

David Greenberg, a history professor at Rutgers University, said past presidents at moments of national crisis, whether George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, have instinctively shifted their message and tactics in an effort to heal.

“Most presidents have found a way to rise to the occasion, even if it meant swallowing hard and suppressing some of their own anger and frustration,” Greenberg said. “There’s no mystery that Trump is not sticking to the normal presidential script here.”

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