WASHINGTON â€” President Donald Trump, declaring himself a â€œpresident of law and orderâ€ threatened Monday to deploy the military to cities where, he said, governors and local officials have â€œfailed to take necessary actionâ€ to end civil unrest.
â€œThese are not acts of peaceful protest,â€ Trump declared during a brief speech in the White House Rose Garden, referring to the demonstrations and sometimes violent acts that have broken out in dozens of major cities. â€œThese are acts of domestic terror.â€
Trump said he was dispatching â€œthousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officersâ€ to end civil unrest.
Even as he declared himself an ally of legitimate protestors, police fired tear gas into peaceful crowds near the White House and advanced on horseback. Reporters in the Rose Garden could hear booms in the background.
Once police and National Guard units cleared Lafayette Park just north of the White House of demonstrators, Trump, in a show of force, walked across it to the historic St. Johnâ€™s Episcopal Church, which was damaged in fires Sunday night.
A phalanx of Secret Service agents surrounded Trump as he crossed the park to the church. Police stood guard on deserted streets, and helicopters buzzed overhead.
Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chief of staff Mark Meadows were among the high-ranking officials with Trump.
The made-for-TV confrontation fit Trumpâ€™s admiration for strongmen in other countries. But his move was likely to spark fear and anger among many Americans who have taken to the streets, potentially escalating the tense situation in many of Americaâ€™s cities.
Trumpâ€™s bellicose language, in which he invoked the 19th-century Insurrection Act to allow deployment of military personnel came after 48 hours in which he had been mostly silent in public, except for his angry Twitter finger.
In private, however, during a call with governors Monday, the president, who tweeted Saturday that looting leads to â€œshooting,â€ pushed for a harsher crackdown.
â€œMost of you are weak,â€ Trump said, berating the governors and urging them to â€œdominateâ€ the protesters, according to a person on the call. He urged state officials to track down lawbreakers and send them to prison for five to 10 years.
A second person with knowledge of the call described the president as â€œbellicose,â€ raising the possibility of military action and describing the situation as a war. The message was echoed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who described the need to â€œdominate the battlespace,â€ language normally used to describe far-flung conflict zones instead of American streets.
The presidentâ€™s comments stunned state leaders who are struggling to defuse tensions that are boiling over in cities around the country.
â€œI know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but Iâ€™m not,â€ Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, said at a briefing later in the day.
â€œAt so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, he was simply nowhere to be found. Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness and self interest.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, told reporters that he â€œthankedâ€ Trump for his input but made clear he disagreed.
â€œA posture of a force on the ground is unsustainable militarily, itâ€™s unsustainable socially because itâ€™s the antithesis of how we live,â€ he said.
Walz took issue with Trumpâ€™s claim that â€œthe world is laughingâ€ at the urban uprisings across America.
â€œNobodyâ€™s laughing here,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re in pain, weâ€™re crying.â€
As strong as the nationâ€™s divisions have been under Trump, there has been rare agreement on one point: Neither on the left nor the right are there many who believe he could deliver the kind of healing address to the country that most presidents try to muster in times of national fissure.
Even the White House has tacitly conceded that point, downplaying the utility of a presidential speech.
â€œContinual statements, as heâ€™s made day and day and day again, they donâ€™t stop anarchy. What stops anarchy is action and thatâ€™s what the president is working on right now,â€ Trumpâ€™s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said during a news briefing Monday at which she invoked the amorphous left-wing movement Antifa, which the White House has sought to blame for violent protests.
Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of his partyâ€™s Senate leadership, offered dismissively faint praise.
â€œThe country is looking for healing and calm. And I think the president needs to project that in his tone,â€ Thune said. â€œHe masters that sometimes.â€
The view was harsher from Trumpâ€™s critics:
â€œThereâ€™s an overwhelming body of evidence out there about how incapable most Americans think he is of handling a moment like this, someone whose whole entire political predicate was based on division,â€ said Cornell Belcher, formerly a pollster for Barack Obama. â€œHow, in a moment when we need a unified voice, can he step in and lead? He canâ€™t.â€
McEnany pointed to Trumpâ€™s comments during a Florida space launch Saturday in which he called the death of George Floyd a â€œgrave tragedy,â€ complaining that the media has ignored them. McEnany also hinted that more federal resources would be deployed and that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley would be overseeing more involvement by the National Guard.
â€œWhat the president has said is he wants to dominate the streets with National Guard,â€ McEnany said.
Trumpâ€™s last Oval Office address, during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, was widely panned as a listless performance that did little to calm a nervous nation. Trump made misstatements during that speech about the scope of a travel ban he was announcing that caused many Americans traveling in Europe to panic, generating a spike in travel that clogged airports and, some experts believe, played a noticeable role in spreading the virus.
Aides are also contemplating a so-called â€œlistening session,â€ but past efforts at such events have almost always been overtaken by a president intent on doing most of the talking himself.
On Friday night, Trump was whisked into the underground bunker at the White House as skirmishes intensified just outside the gates, according to an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. He has been holed up in the White House since Saturday night, remaining out of sight as some buildings near its perimeter burned.
Over the last 48 hours, as police and rioters continued to clash just a few hundred feet from his residence, he has continued to tweet as though he were a bystander, attacking the media and left-wing groups he is selectively blaming for the violence.
Four years ago, Trump received his partyâ€™s nomination in Cleveland, laying out a dark view of the countryâ€™s problems and declaring, â€œI alone can fix it.â€
But now, with that city and dozens of others aflame, his public silence offered a stark reminder that fixing problems has taken second place throughout his presidency to fighting enemies and stoking his base â€” impulses that are counter to the role most presidents assume in such crises.
The contrast between Trump and his predecessors became even clearer when former President Barack Obama on Monday released an essay titled â€œHow to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,â€ which offered support, advice and hope for the protesters while denouncing â€œthe small minority of folks whoâ€™ve resorted to violence in various forms.â€
Even if Trump wanted to deliver a healing address, it would be difficult for him to get past his image. Trump has staked his presidency on a â€œLAW & ORDERâ€ message, a phrase he tweeted in all caps over the weekend, and the strong undercurrent of white identity politics buzzing beneath his words and actions.
He spent months in 2017 denouncing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for lack of patriotism after he took a knee to protest the kinds of police brutality and racism at the heart of the current protests.
In 2017, Trump defended some of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va., as â€œvery fine people.â€ This year, he has defended white, gun-wielding protesters who stormed some state capitals to protest stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic, while labeling the first wave of protesters in Minneapolis last week as â€œTHUGS.â€
McEnany, asked why Trump was condemning Antifa but not conservative militia groups also shown to have infiltrated some recent protest marches, pointed to Trumpâ€™s â€œlong history of condemning white supremacy and racism.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve had three years of pot-stirring from the White House,â€ said Timothy Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. â€œHis go-to has always been to stir anger, to highlight and inflame, and he did it with glee and for political gain and because he just likes to do it.â€
Those qualities, while troubling to many Americans, mattered less politically before the explosion of problems during the fourth year of Trumpâ€™s term.
â€œImagine you are in Trumpâ€™s shoes you have been dealing with the virus, youâ€™ve been dealing with the economy, and youâ€™ve been dealing with China, and then suddenly thereâ€™s this whole eruption,â€ said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House Speaker and Trump ally. â€œYouâ€™re trying to wrap your head around this.â€
Gingrich wants Trump to make a national address, but does not see the presidentâ€™s role as a healer. Instead, he is eager to see him define a â€œcivil warâ€ between people who want â€œto destroy the countryâ€ and those who want to keep it.
â€œItâ€™s not going to calm things because the people youâ€™re up against donâ€™t want to calm anything,â€ said Gingrich, who went on the presidentâ€™s favorite TV program, â€œFox & Friends,â€ to push the idea.
Trump may take that advice, but even some conservatives are turned off by such rhetoric. One person involved in the reelection effort called the White House response puzzling and lacking in strategy.
â€œRemember when presidents would address the nation to reassure us?â€ Eric Erickson, a conservative blogger, wrote on Twitter.
And many closest to the cities, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have said Trump would be better off staying on the sidelines. â€œHis rhetoric only inflames that, and he should sometimes just stop talking,â€ she said Sunday in an interview on CBS.
(Staff writer Molly Oâ€™Toole in Minneapolis contributed to this report.)
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