President Donald Trump took many of America’s governors to task in a teleconference call on Monday, slamming their responses to the looting, vandalism, and arson in cities across the nation as “weak” and urging them to “dominate.”
“It’s a movement, if you don’t put it down it will get worse and worse,” Trump said, according to a recording of the call obtained by CNN. “The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak. You have to arrest people.”
“You have to dominate or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people,” the president insisted. He warned that the “whole world was laughing at Minneapolis over the police station getting burned.”
Indeed, the Fifth Precinct police station caught fire on Wednesday night amid riots that escalated from protests over the horrific death of George Floyd — who died after police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. Americans across the political spectrum have condemned the heinous killing and Trump ordered an FBI investigation. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder.
The riots have escalated, however. As of Monday morning, police across America have arrested at least 4,400 people following destructive riots. Historic monuments have been vandalized and targeted for arson. Vandals even spray-painted “Free Palestine” on a synagogue.
Governors in at least twelve states — California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Utah — have called National Guard troops in to quell the riots. “We are under assault,” Gov. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said as he promised “full strength” would be used to restore order. Walz had waited until Saturday to call the National Guard.
Trump has warned that the riots may be instigated by leftist agitators with the loosely organized antifa movement. He has called for a firm response to put down the riots, offering to send National Guard troops to quell the looting and violence. Twitter pseudo-censored one of his more vulgar tweets to this end, and Joe Biden attacked Trump for supposedly adding to the violence by championing law and order.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-Ill.) also attacked the president’s law-and-order push, claiming Trump was “making it worse.”
“Rhetoric coming out of the White House is making it worse, people are experiencing real pain,” Pritzker said. “We’ve got to have national leadership calling for calm and legitimate concern for protestors.”
“I don’t like your rhetoric that much either,” Trump fired back.
Facing rioting in Chicago, however, Pritzker signed a disaster proclamation for Cook County and deployed 375 military police officers from the Illinois National Guard to Chicago on Sunday.
“Early this morning Mayor Lightfoot requested deployment of the Illinois National Guard to assist the City of Chicago in its work to protect communities and keep people safe. As governor it’s my job to respond when our municipalities ask for assistance,” he said.
Restoring order in the face of destructive looting and riots should not be a partisan issue. While the president should perhaps have restrained himself from chiding governors on the call, he was correct to fault them for not restoring order more quickly.
Following destructive riots on Saturday and Sunday night in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) has yet to deploy the National Guard, although he announced he had “the National Guard on standby.”
Trump: "I live in Manhattan—what’s going on in Manhattan, I have no idea. New York’s finest…they need to do their jobs. I don’t know what’s happening in Manhattan, but it’s terrible…. So they really spend a lot of time on it but New York’s gonna have to toughen up." pic.twitter.com/uf23SA6yo3
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) June 1, 2020
Shortly before the riots came to the Big Apple, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio — who had threatened to “permanently” close churches and synagogues if they violated lockdown orders — did not hesitate to blame Trump for the “atmosphere” of “hatred” behind the riots.
“This is the blunt truth: The president of the United States helped to create this atmosphere,” de Blasio said. “It doesn’t matter what your party affiliation is, it doesn’t matter what you think of President Trump, there’s been an uptick in tension and hatred and division since he came along, it’s just a fact.”
Trump’s many critics slammed his remarks in the call with governors.
“Trump in a call with governors says ‘most of you are weak’ and demands a tougher response. That’s sort of like an arsonist blaming the fire department,” Dan Rather tweeted.
Trump in a call with governors says "most of you are weak" and demands a tougher response. That's sort of like an arsonist blaming the fire department.
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) June 1, 2020
Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, now a political analyst for MSNBC, suggested Trump was seizing on “law and order” in order to distract from the coronavirus.
“Be mindful people, Trump would much prefer a ‘law and order’ debate about how others (governors) are responding to social and civil unrest (Nixon, 1968) than a competency debate about his handling of [the coronavirus pandemic],” Steele tweeted.
Be mindful people, Trump would much prefer a “law and order” debate about how others (governors) are responding to social and civil unrest (Nixon, 1968) than a competency debate about his handling of #COVID19 https://t.co/f3pzfndS0T
— Michael Steele (@MichaelSteele) June 1, 2020
That comparison is particularly revealing, though not in the way Steele suggests. The very governors who have issued stay-at-home orders and arguably abused their power during the lockdowns have hesitated to act, as hordes of rioters march shoulder-to-shoulder, openly flaunting not just social distancing but the basic norms of private property and the rule of law.
The same governors who issued orders that led to police arresting people for worshiping in their cars, protesting abortion clinics, or reopening their businesses to feed their families during the pandemic have stood by as thugs ravaged the streets and burned buildings, without giving the pandemic a second thought.
Partial lockdowns remain in effect in 16 states, with Delaware and New Jersey still in extended lockdowns. Yet these lockdowns did not spur on governors to take firm action against the riots, which have a far greater chance of spreading the coronavirus than socially-distanced abortion clinic protests, drive-in church services, or bars opening in violation of lockdown.
While Trump may seem overzealous in his desire to restore law and order and shut down the looting, rioting, and arson that ravages America’s cities, he was right to call on governors and mayors to step up their responses, to defend the rule of law, and to stop this lawless destruction.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.