President Donald Trump’s hardline stance against protests rocking the United States and threats to call out the military to quell unrest in American cities are drawing criticism from a wide swath of US leaders and have sparked a backlash among Democrats in Congress and even some Republicans.
In nationally televised remarks at the White House on Monday, Trump called the protests “acts of domestic terror” committed by “professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others”.
As the president was speaking on Monday, federal police in riot gear and on horseback using chemical gas and flashbangs then cleared Lafayette Park, a city square of grass and trees that has been the epicentre of the protests in Washington, DC.
Trump’s words and police actions in Lafayette Park have been widely condemned and opened a schism among US leaders over how best to handle the protests, looting and violence that have swept the nation.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat, tweeted that Trump’s “Fascist speech … verged on a declaration of war against American citizens.”
The Reverend Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, DC, said she was outraged that “they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop”.
I imposed a curfew at 7pm. A full 25 minutes before the curfew & w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protestors in front of the White House, an act that will make the job of @DCPoliceDept officers more difficult. Shameful!
DC residents — Go home. Be safe
— Muriel Bowser #StayHomeDC at 7 pm (@MurielBowser) June 2, 2020
The heavy-handed tactics at the White House followed days of inflammatory comments by the president. In a video conference call on June 1, Trump had urged US governors to respond with force to the protests that he said were being turned violent by the “radical left”.
“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to arrest and try people,” Trump said, according to reports of the call after an audio recording emerged.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters at a news conference after the call with Trump, the president’s divisive words failed to provide the leadership the nation needs right now. Trump placed little value on addressing the roots of the protests in systemic racism and police brutality, Baker said.
“I heard what the president said today about dominating and fighting. I know I should be surprised when I hear incendiary words like this from him, but I’m not. At so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found,” Baker said.
Trump offered “bitterness, combativeness and self-interest”, Baker said.
Republican Senator Pat Toomey told reporters in Philadelphia on Monday that the president should tone down the language he had been using in tweets.
“I do think some of his tweets have not been helpful and it would be helpful if he would change the tone of message,” Toomey said.
….have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 30, 2020
The Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wrote a letter to the head of the US Secret Service, which provides for protection of the president and his family and security of the White House, demanding an explanation.
“I write to you stunned, disturbed and furious at the sight of federal authorities tear-gassing peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park, outside the White House,” Representative Bennie Thompson said in the letter, calling it a “shameful” attack on Americans exercising their free speech rights.
Democrats in the House and Senate pledged to bring forward legislation to ban the use of choke holds by police, to remove military weapons and equipment from police forces and provide for stronger oversight and reforms of police departments.
“Most Americans are horrified and outraged by the brokenness of our criminal justice system,” said Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat and former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, a majority African American city.
“We must now act on policing,” Booker said.
Booker and Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat and formerly the first Black attorney general of California, are leading the legislative effort in the US Senate.
Senate Republicans were largely silent on Tuesday about events at the White House and Trump’s rhetoric, with most avoiding reporters’ questions. Instead, Republicans focused on condemning violence elsewhere.
“We all agree that peaceful protests should be happening. There was a great injustice done to Mr Floyd and his family,” said Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican.
“We need to hear those voices but, right now folks, we can’t hear those peaceful protesters voices over the sound of shattering glass and splintering wood,” Ernst told reporters at the US Senate.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the police action in Lafayette Park.
“Yesterday, we saw a most unfortunate situation where, before the time of the curfew occurred, peaceful demonstrators in front of, protesters in front of the White House were beaten,” Pelosi said in a statement at the US Capitol on Tuesday. “That has no place and it’s time for us to do away with that.”
Trump is getting negative ratings from 49 percent of Americans for his response to the protests and events in Minneapolis, according to the latest poll by CBSNews and YouGov. Thirty-two percent approved of Trump’s handling of the crisis, according to the survey of more than 2,000 US residents conducted May 29 to June 1.
White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, dismissed the complaints about the tone of Trump’s remarks during the crisis as “opinion”.
Conway said calling Trump’s actions at Lafayette Park a “photo op” amounted to second-guessing the president’s motives with a childish “Sesame Street word of the day”.
Conway also said no decision had been made yet by Trump to call out the military, as he had threatened to do on Monday.
Appearing at another church on Tuesday, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump laid a wreath at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, a Catholic community centre in Washington, DC.
The archbishop of Catholic Diocese of Washington, DC, Wilton Gregory issued a statement condemning the president’s visit as “baffling and reprehensible” in light of the actions by police the prior day to use “tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate” protesters.