KENOSHA, Wis. — President Donald Trump said Tuesday morning he hoped to bridge the nation’s racial divide. Instead, against the wishes of local officials, he traveled to Wisconsin, where he lauded police officers and dismissed this summer’s protests for racial justice as predominantly violent, left-wing attacks on cities.
“The fact is we’ve seen tremendous violence,” the president told reporters following a roundtable with local law enforcement leaders. “By and large, this is not peaceful protests.”
Before heading to Kenosha, Wis., the site of protests and bloodshed after police shot a Black man on Aug. 23, Trump told reporters outside Joint Base Andrews that he would like to heal America’s racial wounds. The president suggested his messaging was helping accomplish that, “because I’m about law and order.”
But upon arriving in the state, Trump largely ignored the tragedy that ostensibly brought him here: the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who survived but is now partially paralyzed, his family members have said. Two days after Blake was shot, a white counterprotester allegedly shot three people during demonstrations against police brutality in Kenosha, killing two.
Trump did not focus on that violence, but instead on the destruction of private property during the past week’s protests, surveying areas damaged by rioters and touring an emergency operations center.
Speaking with a panel of white law enforcement officers at a Kenosha high school, alongside Attorney General William Barr, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Bryan Steil, Trump blamed “violent mobs” for damaging businesses and public buildings and throwing bricks at police officers.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but really domestic terror,” the president said. And he blamed “reckless far-left politicians” who “continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist. They’ll throw out any word that comes to them. Actually, we must give far greater support to our law enforcement.”
Asked whether he thinks racism in America is a systemic problem, Trump replied, “I don’t believe that at all.”
And he ducked a question about the need for structural changes to U.S. society that protesters are demanding, pivoting instead to those Americans he and other Republicans often call the “silent majority.”
The people in Kenosha “want to see law and order. That’s the change they want,” Trump replied. ”They want people that are gonna keep them safe, where their houses aren’t broken into, where they’re not raped and murdered. That’s what they want. And they’re protesters, too, but they don’t walk down the street.”
Trump heaped effusive praise on the nation’s law enforcement, sympathizing with officers who put their lives in danger and are sometimes forced to make a life-or-death decision in a split second. He urged Americans to accept the fact that officers sometimes “choke” and make bad decisions.
Trump said his administration would provide $1 million to Kenosha law enforcement, nearly $4 million to support small businesses and more than $42 million to support public safety statewide, including funds for prosecutors “to punish criminals and provide services to victims of crimes.”
Asked what he would say to Blake’s family about the events that sparked the latest round of racial justice protests in a summer filled with them, Trump spoke in general terms. “I feel terribly for anybody that goes through that,” he said.
“It’s under your local investigation group unit, and I hope they come up with the right answer,” he added. “It’s a complicated subject, to be honest with you.”
The president’s emphasis on a partisan, pro-police, anti-protest message is illustrative of the pivot Republicans are trying to make, turning the conversation away from an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed upwards of 183,000 Americans, to the issue of public safety as the 2020 presidential race enters its final stretch.
Wisconsin is a battleground state that Trump won in 2016 by less than a percentage point, and Democrats were set to hold their nominating convention in Milwaukee earlier this summer before the event went virtual.
Republicans are seeking to capitalize on violence erupting in cities across the countries this summer, an offshoot of the massive protests that have taken over the streets of towns and cities across the country. Trump has targeted white suburban voters, warning them that their “suburban lifestyle dream” is in jeopardy, and casting Democrats as weak on crime and anti-law enforcement.
On Tuesday, Trump trashed Democratic leaders in Wisconsin and around the country, saying the party wants to defund police, end cash bail, and hire “radical” judges and prosecutors who would release criminals back into the street. The violence erupting across American cities, he added, is all on Democrats.
“All of these problems are Democrat cities,” Trump said. “We don’t wanna say it, but it is.”
In the hours before Trump arrived, about 200 Trump supporters gathered along Sheridan Road through downtown. A couple dozen Black Lives Matter protesters walked through the group, fists raised, calling out “Black lives matter.”
The exchanges between both sides quickly grew fiery, as Trump supporters shouted back “All lives matter!” One Trump supporter yelled that the president had saved the city from burning down as BLM protesters called him a racist and fascist.
The opposing sides got into each other’s faces, adjudicating the violent events that recently swept through the country — from Breonna Taylor in Louisville to George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Even before landing in Kenosha, the president was widening divides. He cited an anonymous person who, he said, claimed to have flown on a plane “filled” with looters, anarchists and rioters “obviously looking for trouble,” doubling down on something even Trump-friendly Fox News host Laura Ingraham said sounded like a conspiracy theory.
Trump also said the man who was killed Saturday in Portland was “targeted” and that protesters “were so happy” about the killing. And he lamented the media’s focus on his supporters shooting paintball guns at protesters instead of highlighting what he called an execution in the street. The shooting was widely covered.
Tuesday afternoon, he chastised a reporter for asking about peaceful protests.
“You keep getting back to the opposite subject,” he said. “We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places.”
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