Violent demonstrations across the United States bring out a particular weakness in the 45th president.
Presidents live within a protective cocoon built and continually fortified for one purpose: keeping them alive. But inside the White House compound these days, Donald Trump seems rattled by what’s transpiring outside the windows of his historic residence.
When Marine One deposited Trump on the South Lawn last night after his day trip to Florida, the president walked toward the entrance of the White House amid a cacophony of car horns and chanting protesters who flung themselves against barricades in an hours-long clash with police. Trump hasn’t seen demonstrations on this kind since he assumed office in January 2017. Protesters breached an outer checkpoint at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue at one point yesterday afternoon. All day long, cars streamed toward the White House, with passengers leaning out the windows and chanting, “Black lives matter!” As one car passed a White House gate at 15th and E Streets, a group of men shouted at the guards: “Fuck you.” On sidewalks littered with soiled masks and empty water bottles, demonstrators pumped their fists in solidarity and demanded respect for African Americans—a community whom Trump says he “loves.”
As night fell, the protesters massed outside Lafayette Square, just north of the White House. A booming drum echoed in the heavy evening air and people chanted, “I can’t breathe!” in homage to 46-year-old George Floyd, who died Monday while pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police, straining for breath. (The three-word chant—which counted among the final words of Eric Garner, another black man who died at the hands of cops, six years ago this month—could be heard in protests across the country last night.) Some tossed water bottles and other projectiles at a line of police officers, who in turn fired pepper spray, causing the protesters to scatter briefly along H Street and then return to the area outside the White House.
Later, vandals shattered windows in nearby buildings and set fire to cars. Graffiti scrawled on the window of a Wells Fargo branch at 17th Street and Pennsylvania read: “capitalism is murder.”
Between the coronavirus and the protests, crisis layered upon crisis, the White House has come to resemble a fortress. I walked onto the grounds yesterday after officials checked my temperature at a security gate and inquired about any symptoms: Had I lost my sense of smell or taste? I made my way toward the briefing room, past a long line of heavily armed police officers preparing to take up positions.
Around 6 p.m., the North Lawn was freshly mowed, the campus quiet. Yet the mood was tense, with police checking their weapons and scanning the crowd growing outside the gates. As I prepared to leave, an agent asked me to wait: Protesters were marching south on 17th Street, and the Secret Service wanted them to pass first. “Are you sure you want to go out there?” another agent asked me as I exited the compound.
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted about the “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” that shield him and make him safe. Young Secret Service agents were girding for a fight, he wrote.
Presidents don’t normally feel compelled to boast about their protection. Trump wrote in a tweet that Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser wouldn’t let the city’s police force assist during protests Friday. (That’s not the case; Secret Service said that city police officers were indeed on the scene.) In a tweet of her own, Bowser called Trump “a scared man. Afraid/alone.”
Trump has made known his disdain for protests that target him or his record. He tends to view them through a simple lens: as provocations that must be put down with unyielding force. Less important to Trump, it seems, are the grievances that give rise to the demonstrations in the first place. He’s described himself as a “law and order” president who admires practitioners of a certain rough justice. Yesterday, he tweeted praise for two generals from history: George Patton and Douglas MacArthur (he misspelled MacArthur). Both played a role in the government’s heavy-handed quashing of a protest in 1932 by war veterans who, in the midst of the Great Depression, wanted early payment of a bonus they were due.
Past presidents have sought to play a healing role when the nation is on edge, but Trump’s instinct is to plunge into combustible circumstances in ways that rouse his base. He encourages protests that align with his interests. Eager to see an economic revival, Trump last month egged on demonstrators who pressed Democratic governors to ease stay-at-home orders despite the coronavirus threat. “LIBERATE” Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, he tweeted. (Some protesters showed up in the Michigan state Capitol with guns and tactical gear).
At a campaign rally in December, he watched as security removed a protester. “Get her out,” he said from the stage. He faulted a security guard for being “politically correct” in his methods. “He didn’t do the greatest job,” Trump said. At a Las Vegas rally during the 2016 campaign, Trump said of a protester who’d shown up: “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and also criticized security personnel for treating the person too gingerly.
Early in his term, he picked a fight with NFL players who knelt in silent protest during the national anthem. He told his vice president, Mike Pence, to walk out of an Indianapolis Colts game in 2017 if members of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee. Pence obliged. The stunt cost taxpayers $325,000.
When Pence said last week that he supported people’s right to “peacefully protest,” he was mocked by the NBA coach Steve Kerr: “How do you have the gall to say this?” (Trump, too, said he supports “peaceful protesters.” At his appearance yesterday in Florida for the launch of the SpaceX craft, he also said: “I understand the pain that people are feeling. We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or with peace.”)
On Friday morning, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” suggesting that the people ransacking stores could be met with deadly force. (He later softened his comment, saying he meant only that he didn’t want to see violence escalate.) “President Trump has thrown a verbal Molotov cocktail into what is already an explosive, emotional situation,” Valerie Jarrett, a former senior aide to President Barack Obama, told me. “He should be doing the exact opposite. He’s playing to a very small part of his base for political purposes.”
In the face of civil unrest, some past presidents looking to defuse tensions granted protesters an audience. Obama met with activists in the Oval Office in 2014 amid demonstrations over the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Richard Nixon was a self-styled law-and-order president, too, who in 1971 talked about hiring teamsters’ union “thugs” to rough up Vietnam War protesters. Yet Nixon also left the White House early one morning in 1970 and made a surprise trip to the Lincoln Memorial, where he spoke to students protesting the war. Nixon told them: “I know probably most of you think I’m an SOB. But I want you to know that I understand just how you feel.”
“He didn’t know how to connect with them, but he did try to empathize and build a bridge,” Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Nixon Presidential Library, told me. “It was an awkward effort, but it was an effort—a unique effort.”
On my way home, I met a couple from Virginia, Samuel and Elizabeth Chisolm, who wanted their two daughters to see the protest and learn something. The family stood on 16th Street, a couple of blocks north of the scrum at Lafayette Square, but close enough to hear the chants and see the police response.
“I’ve been alive to see Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd,” Chelsea Chisolm, 17, told me. “I’ve never been in a major city in a protest. I’ve been the person behind the screen, yelling in their room: ‘No! No!’”
Last night, videos of two NYPD cruisers accelerating into a crowd of Brooklyn protesters exploded across social media. Trump saw fit to say something about police tactics: “Let New York’s Finest be New York’s Finest,” he tweeted. “There is nobody better, but they must be allowed to do their job!”