It’s the kind of frenetic, fractured moment when national leaders are looked to for solutions and solace. President Donald Trump instead threw a rhetorical match into the tinderbox. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he declared ominously in a late-night tweet.
Trump’s words were so jarring that Twitter attached a warning to his post — as well as to an identical message from an official White House account — saying that the president of the United States was “glorifying violence.” It’s the first time the social media giant has taken such a step with any world leader, prompting new claims of bias from Trump and some of his conservative allies.
The episode encapsulated Trump’s approach to the presidency and to this time of national crisis, which has upended nearly every aspect of American life and put his November reelection prospects at risk. He’s latched on to personal grievances and cast himself as a victim, while making only occasional references to the staggering loss of life across the country. He’s willingly stoked partisan divisions over public health, and now racial divisions in the face of a death, rather than seeking opportunities to pull the nation together.
To Trump’s detractors, none of that should come as a surprise at this late stage in his term, which has been defined by such responses at volatile moments. “I had hoped that at least for this one time, some of the president’s advisers would get to him and try to convince him to be consoler-in-chief,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri. “President Trump was not built for times like this.”
Many Republicans were silent about the president’s remarks. Several contacted by The Associated Press either did not respond to questions about whether Trump was appropriately meeting this moment of cascading national crises or would not speak about the matter on the record. Trump’s campaign issued a statement accusing Democrats and the media of twisting Trump’s words and trying to “make money”— an assertion the campaign did not explain.
The death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, added a new element of anxiety to an already nervous nation. Millions of Americans have been largely confined to their homes for weeks as the COVID-19 virus swept through the country and 100,000 people have died, according to official estimates which are believed to be lower than the real toll. The economy has cratered as a result and is unlikely to recover quickly even as some of the most restrictive stay-at-home orders start to ease.
Trump has frequently sided with law enforcement during officer-involved deaths. But he struck a different tone in his initial reaction to Floyd’s death, calling the video a “very shocking sight.” The Department of Justice called the investigation into his death a top priority.
As protests in Minneapolis escalated, Trump shifted toward his more typical posture, describing those taking to the streets as “THUGS” in the tweet that was flagged by the company. His warning in the same message about shooting echoed a phrase used by a Miami police chief in the 1960s during aggressive crackdowns on unrest in black neighborhoods.
Trump “crashed with this statement in showing who he really is,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network. “This is dangerous, this is ugly, this is provocative.” The president tried to explain away the comments on Friday, saying in a new tweet that he was stating “a fact” that people can be shot when looting happens. During a later appearance at the White House, he said he understood the hurt and pain but the situation in Minneapolis should not “descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos.”
Those new words did little to calm the nation. By Friday night, the protests spread from Minneapolis to other spots around the country, including outside the White House. At a moment when many Americans are looking to their leaders, Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the November election, tried to step into the breach. In remarks from his Delaware home, where he has remained throughout the pandemic, Biden offered condolences to Floyd’s family and said it was no time to encourage violence in America.
“We need real leadership right now, leadership that will bring everyone to the table so we can take measures to root out systemic racism,” Biden said. One week ago, Biden was the one facing criticism for comments he made about race after he said in a radio interview that African Americans who don’t support him over Trump “ain’t black.” Biden, who surged to the Democratic nomination on overwhelming support of black voters, quickly walked back that remark.
Trump’s campaign, which has been making targeted appeals to black voters, seized on Biden’s remarks. But the attention, as it so often does, shifted quickly back to the president. Democrats are eager to keep it there, urging Americans to envision four more years of Trump’s responses to racially charged episodes, as well as the health and economic crises roiling the country.
“The nation is on fire, and the president of the United States is standing there with gasoline,” said Rep. Val Demings of Florida, a contender to become Biden’s running mate.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor in Washington and Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC