WASHINGTON – As he stood on stage at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, President Donald Trump reflected the depth of the crises facing his administration: Acknowledging “pain” felt by millions of Americans, he called for “healing, not hatred.”
Forty-eight hours later, peaceful protesters were cleared from a park near the White House as the president stood in the Rose Garden describing himself as “your president of law and order” and demanding that local officials “dominate the streets” – or else.
The whipsaw shift in tone underscored an emerging change of direction from the White House and its conservative allies: The increasingly confrontational demonstrations taking place across the USA, observers said, have given Trump an opportunity to reprise his get-tough approach to law enforcement from 2016.
“We’re not going to solve our issues of racial inequality or feelings of economic hopelessness brought on by the coronavirus pandemic overnight, but we can stop the riots and protests with bold, definitive and unapologetic action,” said Jason Miller, who served as a senior communications adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The president brandished that message with a high degree of drama Monday, appearing in the Rose Garden on short notice as Secret Service and military police swiftly cleared an adjacent park of protesters – their tear gas and flash-bang canisters punctuating his words. Trump then strolled through the park to stand outside a historic church within view of the White House that had been vandalized the night before.
“I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation, and that is exactly what I will do,” Trump said, asserting that if governors did not call up the National Guard to quell the violence he would do it for them. “We will end it now.”
Trump’s walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sustained fire damage a day earlier as protests turned violent, followed reports that he had been hurried into an underground bunker at the White House as protests began to build on Friday – an episode that drew a storm of criticism. Trump wanted to pay his respects to the church but also wanted to leave the White House to prove he was not “in the bunker,” said one official who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s strategy.
But the display drew fierce criticism from Democrats, who noted that at the exact moment the president was describing himself as an “ally” of peaceful protesters, military police were clearing a park of protesters who were demonstrating without incident. Several Democratic lawmakers dismissed the event Monday as a “photo-op.”
“The fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. “I fear for our country tonight and will not stop defending America against Trump’s assault.”