WASHINGTON – In his comments since George Floyd died, President Donald Trump has shared lots of opinions about the need for “law and order,” about fighting crime and the dangerous ideas of the “liberal left.” When it comes to addressing racism, not so much.
Trump has remained largely silent on that, except to argue that a strong economy is the best antidote. He insists he’s “done more for the black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”
But the lack of substantive discussion of racism by the White House has opened the president to criticism that he has failed to show leadership during the unrest following Floyd's death and has inflamed the situation with his “law and order” mantra and tweets about looting and shooting, vicious dogs and ominous weapons.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, says Trump’s relative silence on racism and harsh rhetoric toward protesters have created a confounding dynamic for a consequential national conversation.
“I think we have to have the conversation with him being absent,” Bottoms said. “Having a conversation with him would be like having a conversation with a madman. It would mean nothing."
Trump, for his part, has been quick to cite an economy that hummed before the outbreak of coronavirus and benefited all racial groups, along with his work to secure permanent funding for historically black colleges and universities, opportunity zones in cities and an overhaul of criminal sentencing procedures.
But those who flooded the streets after Floyd’s death want to know how he plans to address the systemic racism they believe is at fault — and what Trump himself believes.
At a recent event highlighting job growth during May, Trump was asked about his plan to address racial inequality and framed his answer through an economic prism:
“What‘s happened to our country, and what you now see, it’s been happening, is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations. For the African American community, for the Asian American, for the Hispanic American community, for women, for everything, because our country is so strong, and that’s what my plan is.”
Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the highest-ranking black administration official, suggested over the weekend that Trump will address the issues “in some detail” this week and that Americans should “reserve judgment."
Administration officials say Trump is reviewing various proposals. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has avoided answering directly when asked if Trump believes systemic racism exists, replying only that the president calls out “injustice” when he sees it.
Some Trump advisers have spoken internally about having the president address the nation on police-community relations and racial injustice but others have counseled against it, believing it would do little good.
Presidents long before Trump have grappled with racism and its effects, from the Kerner commission that Lyndon B. Johnson created to investigate 1960s race riots to Bill Clinton's “Initiative on Race” to the White House “beer summit” Barack Obama held in 2009 with African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the white Cambridge, Massachusetts, police sergeant who had arrested Gates after a misunderstanding outside his home.
More discussion is needed, said Meena Bose, a presidential historian at Hofstra University.
“I don’t know that the United States has really had a sustained conversation about race and wrestled with these questions, really, in kind of that extended way that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s,” Bose said.
Trump has said Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer charged with second-degree murder after pinning Floyd's neck beneath his knee for several minutes, must have “snapped."
Over two weeks of daily protests, tens of thousands of Americans from urban centers to small towns have called for police reform and a reckoning on the stain of racial injustice.
Trump, meanwhile, has focused on organized leftist protesters and tried to make the case that disaster awaits if the nation turns its back on him in November and elects Democrat Joe Biden. The president used Twitter on Tuesday to claim without evidence that a 75-year-old Buffalo, New York, protester who was seriously injured by police belonged to radical Antifa and Democrats should “let police do their job."
“Sometimes you’ll see some horrible things like we witnessed recently," he said, referring to Floyd's death at a White House meeting Monday with law enforcement officials. “But 99, I say 99.9, but let’s go with 99 percent of them are great, great people.”
Trump, a former real estate developer who attended top schools and lived in a Manhattan penthouse before moving to the White House, has long had a complicated relationship with the black community.
In 1989, he took out a full-page ad in New York newspapers following the arrest of five young black and Latino men for the assault of a white woman jogging in Central Park in which he urged, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The convictions of the men, known as the Central Park Five, were vacated in 2002 after another man confessed. Trump never apologized.
Early in his real estate career, Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for violating fair housing laws by discriminating against black applicants. The Trumps ultimately entered a consent decree but did not admit guilt.
Before his 2016 run, Trump spent years pushing the false claim that President Barack Obama, the nation’s only black president, was not born in the United States.
The Rev. Darrell Scott, a Cleveland pastor who has served as liaison for Trump to the African American community, said that before the killing of Floyd, there was a relative “détente” in the conversation because Trump had made progress in addressing economic inequity.
“The fact is the mainstream media won’t give the president the credit he deserves for improving lives in the black community,” Scott said. “And be sure, George Floyd’s death will be a catalyst for change.”
Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, praised Defense Secretary Mark Esper for publicly disagreeing with the president’s push to deploy active-duty military to quell the unrest, and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for repudiating the president’s handling of the crisis. She noted that Trump's wife, Melania, has called for unity and peace.
“We may not agree on policies, but fundamentally there is a piece of goodness in everyone’s heart," said Bottoms, who is among several people Biden is considering as his vice presidential running mate. “And that’s what we are seeing from everyone other than Donald Trump.”
Madhani reported from Chicago and Lemire reported from New York.