Trump tells ‘weak’ governors to ‘dominate’ streets amid protests

By Brett Samuels, Reid Wilson and Morgan Chalfant – 06/01/20 12:08 PM EDT

The Hill

President Trump pressed the nation’s governors to crack down on protesters during a phone call Monday after a night of violent demonstrations in cities across the U.S., according to multiple sources familiar with the call.

One source familiar with the call said that Trump told governors to “dominate” and “take back your streets.” Trump was sharply critical of local leaders on the call, castigating them as being “weak” in response to the demonstrations, according to another source.

The president held the call with state leaders as protests persisted nationwide in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for roughly eight minutes. The officer who pinned Floyd to the ground with his knee was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter last week.

“This call was insane,” said one source briefed on the call. “They just went off on governors.”

Attorney General William Barr said he wanted protesters charged with federal crimes, according to the source. Barr has in recent days emphasized that it is a crime to cross state lines to engage in violence, and the administration as a whole has fixated on Antifa, a loose movement of anti-fascists.

“Federal law enforcement actions will be directed at apprehending and charging the violent radical agitators who have hijacked peaceful protest and are engaged in violations of federal law,” Barr said in a statement Sunday. 

Trump has not spoken publicly about the unrest since Saturday afternoon, when he called Floyd’s death a “grave tragedy” and said his memory was being “dishonored by rioters, looters, and anarchists.”

He has faced pressure from some outside allies and corners of the White House to deliver a formal address acknowledging the unrest sparked by Floyd’s death. Trump spent much of Sunday and Monday morning tweeting about the demonstrations out of public sight and his messaging in the last 48 hours has been largely focused more on the conduct of demonstrators, as protests have erupted across the country and caused local officials to implement curfews.

The president has called for “law and order” and urged governors to activate the National Guard and crack down more strongly on protesters. Currently, about half of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., have activated the National Guard to handle the protests.

He told governors on Monday’s call that states had to start arresting people and “you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again,” according to a recording obtained by CBS News.

Trump has picked fights with Democratic leaders in particular, singling out the mayors of Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. 

The president sparred with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) on Monday’s call after the governor said he was “extraordinarily concerned” about Trump’s rhetoric, according to a person familiar with the call.

“We have to call for calm. We have to have police reform called for,” Pritzker said, adding that the rhetoric from the White House “is making it worse.”

Trump shot back that he was unhappy with Pritzker’s rhetoric on the coronavirus, complaining that the governor “could’ve done a much better job.”

The president said he felt Floyd’s death was a “disgrace.” Trump insisted that he had spoken about the incident and the resulting uproar at length and would continue to do so, according to the person familiar with the call.

“But I also have to speak about law and order. We need law and order in our country,” Trump said on the call. “And if we don’t have law and order, we don’t have a country. So we need law and order.”

In a statement following the call, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who has sparred with Trump over the response to the novel coronavirus, criticized the president for what she characterized as “dangerous comments.”

“Instead of offering support or leadership to bring down the temperature at protests, President Trump told governors to ‘put it down’ or we would be ‘overridden.’ He said governors should ‘dominate’ protesters, ‘or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks,'” Whitmer said. “The president repeatedly and viciously attacked governors, who are doing everything they can to keep the peace while fighting a once-in-a-generation global pandemic.” 

The protests have hit close to home for Trump, as demonstrations across the street from the White House have escalated in each of the past three nights. The president was reportedly taken to a secure bunker on Friday night as tensions rose in nearby Lafayette Square.

Protesters have broken windows at businesses around the White House and vandalized monuments.

Trump’s confrontational tone with governors is likely to spur fresh criticism of his handling of the demonstrations, which have in many cases escalated into looting and vandalism. Police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds, and video showed New York City police driving their cars into crowds of protesters on Saturday.

The president has throughout his time in office sparked controversy for his comments about race and policing, two issues at the heart of the weekend’s protests.

Beyond his remarks on Saturday, Trump has largely taken to Twitter to address the protests.

He was roundly criticized last week for tweeting early Friday morning that protesters in Minneapolis were “thugs” and writing, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a phrase used in the 1960s by a white Miami police chief accused of bigotry against African Americans. Trump has denied knowing the racially-charged history of the phrase and refuted criticism that he was fomenting violence.

He previously spent months chastising NFL players who protested against social injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem, and he has offered support for police officers to pursue harsher tactics toward suspects. Trump urged Chicago police to implement the legally questionable practice of stop-and-frisk, and he quipped in 2017 that officers should not worry about roughing up suspects when loading them into vehicles

Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller

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