U.S. police under scrutiny as protests erupt
President Donald Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military to end “riots and lawlessness” across the country in a Rose Garden address punctuated by the sound of explosions as federal officers dispersed peaceful demonstrators just outside the White House gates.
Trump on Monday night called on governors and mayors to “dominate the streets” and announced that he was sending thousands of heavily armed military personnel into the nation’s capital after days of violent outbursts following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The comments preceded another night of sometimes-violent unrest in U.S. cities, including New York, where looting and arrests continued despite a curfew. Macy’s iconic flagship store on 34th Street was among the businesses breached, according to the Associated Press.
After speaking, Trump took an unannounced walk across the street from the White House through Lafayette Square -- with tear gas hanging in the air that had been used to clear away protesters -- to visit Saint John’s Episcopal Church. The house of worship, known as “The Church of Presidents,” had been damaged in a fire the previous night, as police and protesters clashed in the streets of Washington.
At the church, Trump held a Bible he had brought from the White House in the air and gathered top aides to pose for photos.
“We have the greatest country in the world,” Trump said. “We’re going to keep it safe.”
The president’s words and actions drew immediate outcries from his critics, who argued that Trump had only further inflamed tensions and undercut his claim -- made as flash-bang grenades detonated mere blocks away -- that he was “an ally of all peaceful protesters.” Democratic lawmakers said they were alarmed by Trump’s threat to dispatch the U.S. military against Americans demonstrating against police brutality.
But the president made clear that Monday’s show of force was intended to show that his patience had run out over three days of protests that at one point flared violently enough to drive Trump into an underground security bunker.
Sense of Control
Re-establishing a sense of control is crucial for a president who has been widely faulted for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and paralyzed the economy. Trump and his aides believe the protests are an opportunity to win over voters frustrated by the destruction caused by some of the participants.
In a conference call with governors earlier Monday, Trump signaled his desire to appear more in control, demanding the state officials -- who he labeled as “weak” -- toughen their response to the demonstrations.
“You have to dominate,” Trump told governors and law enforcement. “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
The president and other White House officials didn’t answer questions about what authority he would use to deploy the military outside the federally-controlled capital city, but three people familiar with the matter said Trump was considering invoking the Insurrection Act.
That 1807 law, previously used to intervene during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, allows the president to federalize the National Guard and bring in the U.S. military if states are unable to safeguard constitutionally protected civil rights.
Federal law generally bars the military from enforcing laws at home, leaving policing to state and local authorities.
Trump said he would deploy the military “if a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” suggesting he might become the first president to invoke the act without the support of state governors. The effort could face legal challenges because of the Civil War-era Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents federal troops from preforming domestic law enforcement activities.
Yet allies of the president argue that extreme measures are justified after days of protests across major American cities. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a 7 p.m. curfew across the city after demonstrators set buildings and cars ablaze and looted stores.
The Pentagon said 600 to 800 National Guard troops are being sent to Washington.
An active-duty unit from outside the Washington region has been moved into the area and put on heightened alert but wasn’t immediately deployed, according to Pentagon officials.
National Guard’s Role
Pentagon officials said the primary role of the new National Guard forces would be to defend national monuments, protect the White House and coordinate with Washington’s police.
Still, the enduring image of the president threatening a crackdown while protesters with their hands raised in the air were tear gassed by authorities across from the White House is likely to reverberate and further divide the country.
Bowser, a Democrat, tweeted that the action was “shameful” and would make the job of Washington police officers “more difficult.” Washington Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde said in a CNN interview that Trump used the Bible and the church as “without permission as the backdrop of a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our churches stand for.”
“I am outraged,” she said about the fact that he used tear gas by police officers and riot gear to clear out the crowd.
And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in an interview with the same network that Trump was merely attempting to appeal to his political base.
Reality TV Show'
“The president wants to make it a reality TV show of God and country, call out the military, and then I go to a church and hold up a Bible,” Cuomo said.
Allies of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, sought to contrast Trump’s brief visit outside the church to the former vice president’s trip to a black church in Delaware earlier Monday to hear members of the community express dismay with cases of police brutality.
Biden tweeted that Trump is “using the American military against the American people. He tear-gassed peaceful protesters and fired rubber bullets. For a photo.” Biden added: “We must defeat him.”
Biden is set to deliver a speech on civil unrest in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on “the president, law enforcement and all entrusted with responsibility to respect the dignity and rights of all Americans.”
Criticism of police action has also funneled in from abroad. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters Tuesday in Brussels that the bloc was “shocked and appalled” by Floyd’s death and that it
“We support the right to peaceful protest and also we condemn violence and racism of any kind,” Borrell said.
Trump’s allies applauded his actions. His son Donald Trump Jr., tweeted that the trip to the church was “what leadership looked like” and undermined media narratives that his father “was a coward hiding in his basement.”
White House officials also defended the decision to use force to clear Lafayette Square.
“The perimeter was expanded to help enforce the 7 p.m. curfew in the same area where rioters attempted to burn down one of our nation’s most historic churches the night before,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “Protesters were given three warnings by the U.S. Park Police.”
Demonstrations in Washington continued well past the curfew, and police could be seen leading away some of the protesters.
--With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Jordan Fabian, Billy House and Jonathan Stearns.