A barricade of police troops had already formed outside the White House by the time President Donald Trump returned Saturday evening, still giddy from his trip to Florida to watch the first manned commercial spacecraft launch into orbit.
Even before Trump was hurried into the executive complex by nervous aides and Secret Service personnel, the latest milestone in American space exploration had faded into the background — another casualty of a news cycle focused squarely on protests against police violence that devolved into chaos right outside the president’s front door. As the demonstrations continued into Sunday, followed by violence and looting in the late-night hours, Trump remained in retreat: out of the public eye and away from supporters who dismissed his calls for “law and order” as empty threats amid the backdrop of burning vehicles, graffitied storefronts and Washington’s historic St. John’s Church partly engulfed in flames.
The weekend brought the broadest race-focused protests to sweep America in a half century, and laid bare the Trump administration’s struggle to deliver a fitting response. Caught between placating his supporters, who grew agitated by the lack of a swift crackdown on looters, and the desire for soothing words from a nation in need of healing, Trump tried on multiple messages over the tumultuous 48-hour period — each time his words carrying the risk of exacerbating tensions further.
In a Rose Garden address Monday, against the noise of flash bangs and tear gas unleashed on streets just outside the White House gates, Trump cast himself as a “president of law and order.”
“My first and highest duty as president is to defend our great country and the American people. I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation and that is exactly what I will do,” he declared.
It was a notable departure from his remarks in Cape Canaveral, Fla., over the weekend, as he condemned Floyd’s death as a “grave tragedy” and acknowledged the “horror, anger and grief” many Americans are feeling.
As the pivotal weekend unfolded — with the convergence of George Floyd’s death and ongoing coronavirus outbreak creating social upheaval unseen at this scale under the Trump administration until now — top White House aides were scattered across Washington and beyond, struggling to mount an appropriate response. This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen administration officials and Trump allies.
Some White House aides ventured into the office early Sunday morning for television appearances and meetings before protesters reemerged. Several administration officials trekked to the D.C. suburbs to celebrate incoming Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe at the home of conservative consultant Arthur Schwartz. Among the crowd of at least two dozen party-goers, who exchanged mixed opinions about events of the weekend over afternoon drinks and appetizers, was White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien; White House counsel Pat Cippollone; Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette; State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus; outgoing Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell; Andrew Giuliani, a White House public liaison official; and Kash Patel, a senior official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Four people familiar with the gathering said O’Brien did not appear to stay long, and arrived after participating in a series of Sunday show interviews from the White House. Spokespeople for the National Security Council and the Energy Department declined to comment.
In an email to POLITICO, Schwartz said of the gathering: “There was a secret meeting at my house to discuss the media-incited violent riots where Antifa looted American businesses across the country.”
One administration official in attendance said guests discussed the protests over Floyd’s death, among other topics. “There were conversations about everything. We talked about when baseball is going to come back and were trying to figure out ways to start the country again and deal with these municipalities that are getting out of control,” the official said.
Neither the president’s chief of staff Mark Meadows, nor his senior adviser Jared Kushner — whose effort to boost the president’s appeal with African Americans could be upended by Trump’s approach to the latest crisis — attended the suburban gathering. Meadows spent the weekend with family outside of Washington, and Kushner did not go into the West Wing on Saturday or Sunday. His wife, senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump, was spotted walking in Northwest Washington on Sunday.
White House staffers received an email on Sunday advising them not to come into the office if possible as the White House campus was under an “elevated security posture.” They were also told on Sunday and Monday to hide their government and White House complex badges until reaching the entrance of the White House. On Monday, aides also received an email saying that White House staffers could leave work at 4 p.m. A spokesman said the White House “does not comment on security protocols and decisions.”
Several of the president’s senior aides spent the weekend debating the merits of Trump delivering a formal address to the nation about the civil unrest — both the peaceful protests and the violent riots. Top staffers like Meadows wanted Trump to give a speech to emphasize his law-and-order credentials — a selling point for many of his base supporters — while Kushner and counselor to the president Hope Hicks urged restraint. The latter two aides worried that a speech in this environment could alienate key voters, including African Americans and suburban women, whom the Trump campaign has sought to make inroads with ahead of the 2020 election.
Others close to the White House said the format would end up backfiring on Trump, who looked uncomfortable and restless during his last Oval Office address about the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March, and encouraged him to take stronger action against rioters instead of offering another string of comments.
“He can’t moderate his tone or inflections,” one person close to the White House said before Trump’s Monday evening remarks. “He’s a terrible teleprompter reader. He’s imprecise. He’s a blunt instrument, so the idea that Trump is going to get on television and say anything that comforts people — it’s not going to happen.”
Some of the president’s aides argued internally that the string of protests in major cities stemmed not just from anger over Floyd’s death, but from frustration over the coronavirus lockdowns and the upsetting state of the U.S. economy. The president should wait a few days before deciding on his next steps, these aides suggested.
But by Monday mid-morning, Trump’s political advisers and many within his political base were apoplectic that he had not yet delivered an address to assure Americans of their safety, or announced further actions to prevent daytime demonstrations from further descending into clashes between law enforcement and protesters.
Conservative news outlets and Trump loyalists were publicly trashing the president for staying silent on Sunday, apart from a tweet announcing his decision to designate anti-fascism protesters known as Antifa as a terrorist organization. Trump also went after the media in a pair of tweets Sunday evening and shared the all-caps message: “LAW & ORDER!”
“It would be great if the President of the United States would stop rage tweeting in all caps and actually take decisive action as a leader instead of going MIA as our nation melts down,” Republican operative Caleb Hull said on Twitter. “I’ve heard nothing but disappointment from @realDonaldTrump’s biggest supporters.”
Trump‘s Monday evening speech came days after he was taken into a White House bunker at the outset of protests in Lafayette Park, prompting a mocking “Where’s Trump?” message to circulate over the weekend online.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter, author of “In Trump We Trust,” questioned the reason for his lack of visibility after Saturday night’s violence. “Is it possible Trump has resigned and they just haven’t gotten around to the press release?” she wrote on Twitter Sunday evening.
One Republican close to the White House described violent riots as “a political goldmine” for Trump in the middle of an election year, “but only if the president takes advantage of the opening the left has given him.”
Trump allies, advisers and friends were reaching out to the president and his top aides directly over the weekend to pressure him to do something — if not a speech in the Oval Office then one in the Rose Garden or another White House setting. Some White House aides, frustrated by what they viewed as a weak response by the president, sought reinforcement from outside allies who talk with Trump regularly — hoping they could persuade him to take a sterner approach moving forward.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany had swatted down the idea of an Oval Office address during an appearance on “Fox & Friends“ Monday morning, even as some of her colleagues continued to push for one internally.
“A national Oval Office address will not stop Antifa,” McEnany told the Fox hosts. “What is going to stop Antifa is action, and this president is committed to acting on it. He has several meetings pertaining to that today.”
McEnany’s comments echoed what Kushner privately told other White House aides and advisers as he urged a more restrained approach over the weekend.
But with Kushner and Meadows both absent from the White House on Sunday, the dearth of top staffers around Trump left top allies and advisers under the impression the president was making decisions alone over the weekend at a key juncture in his administration.
There was a growing recognition within the Trump orbit that the president needed to speak up more forcefully, and as part of that speech, he should acknowledge the tragedy of Floyd’s death while arguing that rogue actors could not run amok in cities. In his remarks on Monday evening, Trump did indeed touch on the tragedy of Floyd’s death.
Aides and advisers wanted Trump to try to parse out for Americans the difference between peaceful protesters and violent players, like Antifa, who the White House says is weaponizing the social unrest for their own interests. They wanted a focus on a base-pleasing message: the need for greater law and order.
“Working class Americans are aghast at these violent riots and are craving law and order, not anarchy,” said the Republican close to the White House. “A formal speech isn’t necessarily about ending the riots, it is about calming the waters and giving people who are fearful for their well being a sense of safety.”
When asked why Antifa keeps coming up in the administration’s messaging, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said officials “received information from state and local authorities and our U.S. Attorneys” on Antifa’s role, although she declined to go into details. The FBI has been interviewing some suspects who have been arrested in connection to violence over the last week.
Trump’s political advisers believed delivering a sterner televised address could be a political boost for the president amid the pandemic, cratering economy and mass protests. They saw it as an opportunity to reassure the nation, including key voting blocs of senior citizens and suburban women, that the country would be safe, while putting political pressure on Democratic mayors and state leaders to end the violent riots.
In a phone call with the nation’s governors Monday morning, Trump called participants “weak” and accused them of treating violent protesters with too much leniency.
“You’re making a mistake because you’re making yourselves look like fools,” he said. “Some have done a great job, but a lot of you — it’s not a great day for our country.”
The White House’s acting director of the domestic policy council said Monday in a POLITICO Playbook virtual event that the White House was busy formulating its plans for the weeks ahead, but did not specify what new policies Trump might enact.
“We are working through a list of solutions and possibilities — bipartisan. How do we come together? How do we use this as a unifying force for this country?” Rollins said.
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