In the two weeks since George Floyd’s death, President Donald Trump’s advisers have worked to prepare him to meet the national moment.
Some have shared stories with him about their own or their friends’ experiences with racism, encouraging Trump to be more empathetic. A group of White House officials solicited ideas from criminal justice reform advocates about policing reforms and proposed the President meet with African American leaders. And this week, White House officials put the President in a room with law enforcement officials who argued certain aspects of policing could change.
But as Trump now considers backing some of those reforms and addressing issues of race and policing in a prominent speech, his message on the subject remains muddled and – in the view of some advisers – tinged by a hardline stance he adopted at the start of nationwide protests that some view as difficult to walk back.
In the two weeks since national protests began, Trump has sought to stamp out unrest using overwhelming police and military force, shown little interest in addressing questions of systemic racism at the heart of the protests and renewed his criticism of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a form of peaceful protest.
Even as he considers unveiling police reform proposals as early as this week, Trump and many of his top lieutenants have denied systemic racism is a problem in policing at all.
On Tuesday morning, as his aides prepared to present him with potential police reforms, Trump seized on an incident of police force that had been widely condemned, accusing a 75-year-old Buffalo protester who was seriously injured after police pushed him to the ground of being part of an Antifa “set up.”
A week after staking out a hardline “law and order” stance with his chemical-misted walk to St. John’s Church, some Trump advisers say it is unclear how Trump can pivot to a more conciliatory message. Two Trump campaign advisers said they believe Trump has mishandled the protests, questioning whether Trump has what it takes to close the gap.
“A speech, lacking genuine compassion, at any point would not help,” the adviser said. “He’s just not genuinely compassionate.”
Law and order message
In meetings over the past week – including a session with campaign and Republican National Committee communications aides – Trump reverted repeatedly to his law and order message even as violence faded from ongoing street protests and National Guard troops began withdrawing from Washington.
Chief among Trump’s concerns, according to officials and others familiar with his approach, is not appearing weak in the face of violence and looting, a stance that has been reinforced in his conversations with allies in conservative media and elsewhere.
Though he has publicly and privately decried the killing of Floyd, the unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest, Trump has shown little willingness to move beyond the tough-on-crime rhetoric he believes is welcomed by his core supporters. A year-and-a-half after signing the First Step Act, a landmark piece of criminal justice reform legislation, Trump’s default view of criminal justice issues continues to skew toward the tough-on-crime mantra that has shaped his views for decades prior.
Ongoing efforts inside the White House to convene a “listening session” for Trump with black leaders have been halting, though Vice President Mike Pence participated in one last week. It’s possible Trump does meet with social justice campaigners at some point this week, officials said, though the parameters were still being worked out. One official said any event would likely include evangelicals, whom Trump has fixated upon after polls showed support for him slipping among the key electoral constituency.
In the two weeks since Floyd’s death, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Ja’Ron Smith and other White House officials have held conversations with several criminal justice reform advocates and law enforcement groups to solicit ideas for potential policy action. Those conversations have centered around Kushner and Smith’s pre-existing relationships with groups that were key to the passage of the First Step Act.
While the White House works to assess what kinds of policies Trump could support and publicly back, Democrats on Capitol Hill have already charged forward with a package of legislative action, swift action that will be the backdrop to whatever action Trump ultimately proposes.
Senate Republicans have also formed a task force to work on policing reform legislation. The group is led by Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only black Republican, and includes GOP Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Shelley Moore Capito and Ben Sasse. After a Senate Republican lunch on Tuesday during which Scott laid out some of his proposals – including an anti-lynching provision, funding for police body cameras and a review of “no knock” warrants – the South Carolina Republican said he was working on a “separate track” from the White House.
Later, Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows traveled to Capitol Hill along with Kushner and Smith to discuss potential police reform legislation in Scott’s office.
“We’re hopeful that we can address the issue in a real way,” Meadows told reporters as he departed the Capitol. “We’re letting stakeholders establish the priorities and hopefully we can be responsive with real legislation or action, we want to let our actions speak louder than our words.”
While a proposal to have Trump sit down with African American leaders has been put off, Trump did sit down with law enforcement officials on Monday. But rather than encourage the President to dig in on the tough-on-crime rhetoric that has dominated his Twitter feed, Trump heard from law enforcement officials who believe in implementing reforms.
Chief Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the roundtable lasted “over an hour” after the press left the room on Monday and that Trump heard from several law enforcement officials about reforms they believe should be implemented – from creating a national database of police officers who have lost their certification and been fired from certain departments to developing national standards for police officer training and disciplinary action.
“I thought he was incredibly receptive,” Casstevens said. “A lot of the topics that we brought up … I think were enlightening for the President to hear.”
Casstevens and others involved in discussions with the White House said there is broadest agreement around the need for developing a national use of force standard for police officers.
Trump, meanwhile, has shown scant interest – at least in public – on answering questions about racism and policing. He has curtailed the number of questions he’s taken from reporters over the past several days, including on matters of race, a distinct shift from when he convened near-daily press conferences during the coronavirus pandemic. And his public schedules have been light for most of the past several days.
While he acknowledged Monday there may be a way to combat crime “in a much more gentle fashion,” he insisted again that “99.9%” of police officers are “great, great people” without implicit racial biases.
He was echoing the views of several top Cabinet officials, who also said over the last several days that systemic racism did not exist in American law enforcement.
“I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist,” Attorney General William Barr told CBS News on Sunday.
“Painting law enforcement with a broad brush of systemic racism is really a disservice to the men and women who put on the badge,” acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf said on ABC.
Even as Trump’s election-year rival former Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Houston this week to meet with members of Floyd’s family and taped a deeply personal address that was played during his funeral on Tuesday, Trump has not made plans to travel either to Houston or to Minneapolis, where Floyd died, though the idea was briefly raised inside the White House.
Instead, Trump has appeared focused more on resuming his campaign travel. He tweeted on Tuesday that his first campaign rally after a months-long moratorium due to the coronavirus pandemic could come next week.
He plans to raise campaign money in Texas on Thursday, and aides said it was possible Trump also participates in an event related to the ongoing national conversation about policing and race while he’s there.
Though some officials inside the White House continue pushing for Trump to deliver some type of address signaling his interest and focus on the anger surrounding police brutality, others have questioned what Trump’s message would be and have cautioned against delivering an address to the nation just for the sake of doing it.
Some inside the White House also believe Trump should hear from members of the black community to better understand the issues and to help generate ideas for how to move forward before speaking to the country.
Trump, however, has insisted that a focus on “law and order” plays better politically and has downplayed the role that racism plays in violent police incidents.
His approach seemed to gain new life over the weekend after some activists and Democrats called for the defunding, and in some cases the dismantling, of police departments, an approach Trump swiftly condemned and pinned on Biden. Aides said they viewed the liberal defunding push as way to extend the “law and order” messaging even as riots subside and questions turn toward police reform.
Biden quickly said he didn’t support defunding the police.