President Trump gave his first televised speech on the George Floyd protests Monday, emphasizing the need for “law and order” and threatening to send in the US military to violently disperse “mobs” across the country.
Just before he spoke, federal police violently broke up a peaceful protest just outside the White House, tear-gassing a group of about 1,000 demonstrators and then firing rubber bullets at them so Trump could have an uninterrupted photo op at a nearby church damaged in the weekend’s upheaval.
The speech began on a seemingly sympathetic note, declaring that “all Americans were rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd” and praising “the righteous cries of peaceful protesters.” But after those opening lines, it immediately turned into an authoritarian-sounding denunciation of the protests raging across the country.
Declaring that “I am your president of law and order,” Trump warned that “our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists.” He ordered mayors and governors to “dominate” the street, warning that “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.” Those who crossed Trump on this “will be detained and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
It was unclear, during the speech, precisely what any of this meant. It is illegal for the president to deploy the military in the fashion he’s describing unless he invokes a law called the Insurrection Act, passed in 1807, which he has yet to do.
But the true message of Trump’s address could be seen near the White House. On H Street, one of the closest publicly accessible streets to the White House, a crowd had gathered to demonstrate against police violence. Without warning or provocation, the police shot tear gas into the crowd and fired rubber bullets. Mounted police rode into the crowd, herding the entirely peaceful and legitimate demonstrators away from their location.
The reason for their move soon became clear. Trump had planned a visit to St. John’s Church, on the same block as the demonstration. St. John’s had been damaged during last night’s upheaval and had become a cause célèbre for conservatives angry about the unrest. The protest was in the way.
People gathering to demonstrate against police violence were attacked by the police so the president could have a photo op. Trump’s claim to respect “peaceful protesters,” and only want to forcefully break up the violent ones, was almost immediately shown to be hollow.
UPDATE: This piece originally referred to Trump’s Monday address as Trump’s first televised “statement” on the George Floyd protests. It was Trump’s first full televised speech dedicated to the topic, but on Saturday he did touch on the protests during an address otherwise focused on the SpaceX launch. We have changed the language to reflect that.