WASHINGTON — As the nation prepared for another night of violent protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, President Donald Trump threatened to deploy the military if states and cities failed to quell the demonstrations.
“I am mobilizing all federal and local resources, civilian and military, to protect the rights of law abiding Americans,” Trump said during a hastily arranged address at the White House.
“Today I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets. Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming presence until the violence is quelled,” Trump said.
“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” said the president.
Trump stopped short of invoking the Insurrection Act, an archaic law from 1807 that would allow Trump to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to respond to protests in cities across the country. “At this time, the president has not enacted the Insurrection Act,” a senior Defense Department official told CNBC. “I refer you to the White House for more.”
During his address, Trump said he was taking “swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington DC,” adding, “What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace.”
“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”
As the president spoke, riot police and military police outside the White House were using tear gas to clear protesters out of Lafayette Square, a public square in front of the president’s residence.
Following his remarks, Trump left the White House and walked through the square, and it appeared strongly as though the riot police had forcibly cleared the square for the sole purpose of clearing a path for the president.
Once he reached the far side of the square, Trump raised a bible in front of St. John’s Church, which had been set on fire by protesters the night before. The president did not try to talk to any of the protesters, however, leaving little doubt as to where his sympathies lay.
U.S. President Donald Trump walks through Lafayette Park to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House during ongoing protests over racial inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters
Trump’s address followed a weekend where he threatened the protesters gathered outside the gates of the White House with the promise of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.”
During a teleconference with governors Monday, Trump berated them for not using harsher tactics to quell the protests that have lit up dozens of American cities since last week, when Floyd, 46, an unarmed black man, was killed by Minneapolis police.
“You have to dominate, 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. You have to dominate,” the president told governors.
Trump pressured the governors to mobilize more National Guard units, called for 10 year prison sentences for violent protesters, and effectively blamed the governors themselves for the racial unrest in their states.
“The only time [violent protests are] successful is when you’re weak. And most of you are weak,” Trump can be heard saying on the audio tape.
Trump also told the governors he was putting the nation’s highest-ranking military officer “in charge.”
“General Milley is here who’s head of Joint Chiefs of Staff, a fighter, a warrior, and a lot of victories and no losses. And he hates to see the way it’s being handled in the various states. And I’ve just put him in charge,” Trump told governors.
It was not immediately clear what Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley would be tasked with as it relates to the domestic unrest across the nation. The Pentagon added few details.
“The chairman will continue to advise the secretary of Defense,” Pentagon spokesperson U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell told CNBC.
As of Monday morning, 23 states and the District of Columbia have mobilized more than 17,000 National Guard personnel in support of state and local authorities. More than 45,000 members of the National Guard are already supporting coronavirus response efforts at their governors’ direction.
Inside the White House there was little consensus Monday over what Trump should do next. Some aides advised the president to deliver a formal address to the nation, urging calm and unity.
Other advisers recommended that Trump take the opposite tack, and escalate the federal response, up to and including Trump invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to order federal troops into Washington D.C.
The address Monday night appeared to be a way for Trump to thread the needle through both sides of the advice he was receiving: To address the nation, but to use the address to threaten harsher action.
US President Donald Trump holds up a bible in front of St John’s Episcopal church after walking across Lafayette Park from the White House in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images
On Saturday, Trump had attempted to empathize with protesters and with Floyd’s family during remarks he delivered at a SpaceX launch in Florida.
“I understand the pain that people are feeling,” Trump said. “We support the right of peaceful protesters, and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or with peace.
“The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters, and anarchists. The violence and vandalism is being led by Antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses, and burning down buildings.”
But even in his scripted sympathy, Trump could not help but to politicize the protests by blaming “radical left-wing groups.”
Save for his trip to Florida, Trump spent the remainder of the weekend effectively negating the message of his speech there, tweeting out threats, calling for the military to quell the protests, and demanding more arrests.