The president’s messages about protesters and vandals have continued apace, often in the early hours of the morning or the late hours of the evening when he is not surrounded by aides, but sometimes in interviews and executive orders.
“We are tracking down the two Anarchists who threw paint on the magnificent George Washington Statue in Manhattan. We have them on tape. They will be prosecuted and face 10 years in Prison based on the Monuments and Statues Act,” Trump wrote Tuesday morning. “Turn yourselves in now!”
As the country convulses from incidents of police killings, mass protests and a rapidly spreading pandemic that has led to double-digit unemployment, the president seems most intent on inflaming an already burning culture war, using his Twitter feed to focus on vandalism by protesters and the well-being of statues that have been targeted.
Trump has rarely posted about the coronavirus in recent weeks, skipping task force meetings and briefings. Police reform measures have not been at the top of his mind, with Republican allies saying he missed a chance to highlight Democrats scuttling a bill championed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lone black Senate Republican and one of only three in the Chamber. An economic recovery message being pushed by allies often seems to get less attention from the president.
Instead, in dozens of tweets and comments, he has advocated for harsher criminal penalties and long jail sentences for those tearing down statues, suggesting up to 10 years in prison. Some allies note it is hard to see how 10 years in prison for painting a statue squares with the criminal justice law he signed and often promotes. Protesters who burn the flag, he said, should get one year in jail.
“This is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” the president tweeted Tuesday.
Trump has called federal authorities privately to ensure damaged statues are fixed quickly, according to people familiar with his activities, after seeing them on Fox News. He threatened protesters ahead of his recent rally in Oklahoma with a “different scene” than in New York or Seattle.
The president has repeatedly posted videos that highlight racial conflict, from a supporter on a golf cart shouting “white power” at cursing Trump protesters, to a video of two gun-wielding white residents in front of their mansion, pointing guns at a crowd of black demonstrators chanting and marching on the sidewalk. He recently highlighted a video of what appeared to be a white department store employee being assaulted by a black customer.
“Looks what’s going on here,” the president wrote. “Where are the protesters? Was this man arrested?”
The White House has similarly turned its attention to vandalism of statues, blaring in a recent email alert that Trump was “DEFENDING AMERICAN HISTORY FROM THE MOB.” The president has signed an executive order on “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.”
In several Oval Office meetings, the president has argued that looters and rioters, which have been a small part of largely peaceful protests across the country, as well as the toppling of statues, will ultimately help him win election because people will grow tired of their behavior and appreciate his harsh rhetoric. Some of his allies warned him of substantive political danger during the early nights of the protests following the killing of a black man while in Minneapolis policy custody for not doing enough to tamp them down.
“The iconoclasm is good for us,” said a senior campaign official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations or strategies. “It’s a great political issue for the president.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Trump said that statues are important for history’s sake during an Oval Office interview with Fox News on Sunday night. He has particularly focused on the statue of Andrew Jackson, his favorite president, who has drawn the ire of protesters for, in particular, his harsh treatment of Native Americans.
So far, it remains unclear whether what advisers said is a political calculation will work. Voters have disapproved of Trump’s responses to the coronavirus and the protests after police shootings, according to national and swing state polls. Support for Black Lives Matter has increased during recent months, according to a recent Pew poll, with 67 percent of all Americans voicing approval.
The president finds himself at the nadir of his popularity just four months before the election, trailing in swing states and with some allies calling for a change in his campaign.
“When I go to marches and you got as many white people, in some cases more white people, than black people, I tell people, he’s playing to an audience that’s not in the room. They don’t go to his show anymore,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who has known Trump for decades.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who has written about race, said the president sees the issue as a cultural one that plays to his political base, such as NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, during a time he can no longer point to a strong economy.
“His argument is Main Street values against a crazy wave of anarchy. A lot will depend on how inflamed the monument issue gets. Trump has a vested issue in this. He’s actually cheering the anarchists on, daring them to take more down,” he said. “It’s the one Hail Mary he has in his arsenal kit. He’s losing badly, and he doesn’t have the kind of numbers he needs to win reelection.”
Still, Brinkley said many Americans do not want to see their “shared civic history collapsing in front of our eyes.”
On Tuesday, former vice president Joe Biden said he is opposed to all monuments being torn down. Trump allies have repeatedly attacked Biden for not saying more about the looting after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“There is a difference between reminders and remembrances of history,” Biden said. “The idea of comparing whether or not George Washington owned slaves or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was in rebellion committing treason . . . trying to take down the union and keep slavery. I think there’s a distinction.”
The president has long defended Confederate statues or naming military bases after its leaders while taking inflammatory stances on race. After protesters clashed with white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, Trump told advisers that Confederate statues should stay up because of “legacy” and “heritage,” one former senior administration official said, and praised some Confederate generals, such as Robert E. Lee. He also repeatedly argued in meetings during that period that his supporters backed the statues staying up, and he wanted to take a “strong” stance on the issue to show his support, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions.
“It doesn’t matter what someone is chanting. If they are wearing a Trump hat, he’s for them. It’s what happened in Charlottesville. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what they stand for. If they support him, he thinks they are good people,” said Brendan Buck, a former top aide to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other Republican officials.
During the 2018 midterm elections, Trump focused heavily on caravans of Central American migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border, even though some Republican officials said it was hurting the party. Republicans lost the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin even as the president barnstormed the country on behalf of candidates. When some advisers told Trump that his immigration message was not a winner, he told them they were wrong.
“It is a dangerous and explosive way to try and divide the country,” Sharpton said. “Trump is trying to act like all of us who have been marching are just violent thugs. He’s doing that to say, you need me, white America, to protect you from them. I am the only thing between you and them running on your lawn, and taking your house.”