WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has dismissed advice from his allies urging him to tone down his rhetoric and held back so far on a formal address to the nation as cities across the country faced another night of fiery protests.
As the roar of police helicopters and chanting crowds reverberated through the White House grounds for a third night, Trump once again opted against seeking to make prime time remarks from the Oval Office, as other presidents have done in times of domestic crisis.
Instead, he spent the day on Twitter, doubling down on a strategy of calling for stronger police tactics that critics have said is only worsening the situation.
Trump’s advisers have been divided over what role the president should take in responding to the most widespread unrest the country has seen in decades. Some say Trump should focus his message on George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police, and urge calm. Others say the top priority is stopping the violence and looting that have taken place in some areas, arguing the best path to that end is strong police tactics, not presidential speeches.
Senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is not in favor of a high-profile presidential speech at this time, according to a person close to the White House.
Some Trump allies agree. “It doesn’t matter how brilliant an Oval Office address President Trump gives, that isn’t going to make a difference to people financially and the real issue is the economy,” said Jason Miller, a former campaign communications adviser. With a formal address, “he would only be set up for failure. It’s so easy to say he didn’t strike the perfect chord, or left out this detail. There are only various levels of failure that could result.”
But a second camp in Trump’s inner circle has been calling on him to tone down his strong-arm law and order rhetoric, including Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who said he spoke to the president on Saturday and called his tweets “not constructive.”
“I told him what I’m going to tell you, which is, Mr. President, it helps us when you focus on the death, the unjustified, in my opinion, the criminal death of George Floyd,” Scott said Sunday in a Fox News interview. “Those tweets are very helpful, it is helpful when you say what you said yesterday, which is that it’s important for us to recognize the benefits of non-violent protests.”
There is broad agreement among Trump’s allies and closest aides that his current, largely incendiary messaging on protesters could backfire politically and also potentially further fuel the turmoil, these people said.
The president’s advisers warned Trump this weekend that while the election is still five months away, there is a risk that some of his rhetoric could alienate key voters such as moderates and suburban women.
Those same counselors told the president his tweets on Thursday — which included the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — were particularly inflammatory and “ill-advised.”
Trump has at times softened his rhetoric over the past few days to express some empathy with protesters, saying Friday during an event with business executives on coronavirus that "I understand the hurt. I understand the pain. People have really been through a lot.”
In remarks following a visit to view the SpaceX rocket launch in Florida Saturday, Trump said the death of Floyd had “filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief."
The protests have become increasingly real for Trump and White House staffers over the last 72 hours. On Friday, the president was taken by Secret Service to the underground bunker used for former Vice President Dick Cheney during the Sept. 11 attacks, where he stayed less than an hour out of an abundance of caution, according to a senior administration official.
White House staffers were told over the weekend not to come to the White House complex unless absolutely necessary, though no directive had yet been given for Monday, said a White House aide.
Still, Trump has carried on an appearance of business as usual. With cities still smoldering, Trump returned to Florida Saturday afternoon to watch the country’s first commercially manned rocket launch, an event the White House planned to use to tout American innovation and the economy. When asked by reporters if he considered calling off the trip, Trump said he felt he had an obligation to be there.
After protests turned violent in Minneapolis on Thursday night, Trump did not sway from his planned Friday remarks outlining actions his administration was taking against China. The Rose Garden event, his first public comments of the day, included no mention of the protests, and the president surprised staff by choosing not to take questions from reporters at the end of his prepared remarks. It wasn’t until a second event later in the afternoon that he noted the events of the preceding night.
Nor did he let the massive scale of the protests sweeping across the country change the messaging he has used during past demonstrations. He again blamed Democrats for unrest, and dismissed the protestors as “professionally managed,” describing them as “a lot of radical-left bad people.” His solution, rather than urging calm, has been to push for a stronger police crackdown and a bigger National Guard presence.
Trump has had a pattern during past crises of being slow to divert from his agenda and planned talking points. The weekend before he declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, he was golfing and holding fundraisers at his Mar-a-Lago resort downplaying the severity of the virus. During the controversy around his comments on the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Trump spent the weekend at his Bedminster golf course, holding a meeting on tax cuts at the White House and traveling to Trump Tower in New York for a meeting on infrastructure as the controversy ballooned.
But while Trump has been heavily criticized over his response, the demonstrations provide him the type of culture war distraction he had been seeking to take the focus away from his administration’s response the coronavirus, which killed more than 100,000 people this week and has resulted in one in four Americans filing for unemployment, said one outside adviser.
Prior to the escalation of the demonstrations, Trump had been having little success trying to shift the national conversation away from the coronavirus pandemic to other divisive issues popular with conservatives, such as voter fraud, alleged social media bias and China. Now, says that adviser, he can appear as the strong-arm law-and-order candidate protecting the country from lawlessness.
His campaign is watching closely and already looking for ways to turn the demonstrations against apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden by questioning whether the former vice president supports Trump’s move to designate antifa, a group of far-left activists, a terrorist organization.
"President Trump has been fighting culture wars since he announced his candidacy in 2015,” said Garrett Ventry, a former Republican Senate aide. “The president believes that it is a win when he engages in these fights, it ignites his base.”
But as one outside adviser stressed, the national turmoil this weekend also highlights the “divisive nature” of the president’s politics at a time when “he and his re-election campaign could really use some ‘uniter in chief’ and ‘healer in chief’ type headlines.”