As Donald Trump vowed to crack down on nationwide protests against police brutality on Monday, Republican lawmakers expressed uneasiness with the president’s rhetoric just days after a white police officer killed a Black man by kneeling on his neck.
“The country is looking for healing and calm. And I think the president needs to project that in his tone. He masters that sometimes, and ... that’s the tone he needs to strike right now,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters on Capitol Hill when asked the president’s handling of the demonstrations.
After protests intensified in Minneapolis and other cities following George Floyd’s death last week, Trump predicted on Twitter that local looting could lead to “shooting,” a phrase with racist origins dating back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Over the weekend, Trump appeared to invite his supporters to the grounds near the White House where protesters had clashed with Secret Service and U.S. Park Police, raising concerns that the unrest could escalate further.
And on a contentious call on Monday with the nation’s governors, Trump said they would be “weak” and “fools” if they do not “dominate” demonstrations in their states, some of which turned violent overnight.
“If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you ― you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate,” Trump told the nation’s chief executives, suggesting the military might get involved to break up protests.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) challenged Trump during the call, saying he was “extraordinarily concerned” about his response to the protests, calling it “inflammatory.”
The president’s heated rhetoric over the last several days also didn’t sit well with some Republican senators, who voiced concern about the message coming from the White House at an extremely volatile period in U.S. history.
“It would be helpful if he would change the tone of his message,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in remarks to reporters in his state.
In a speech on the Senate floor addressing the unrest over Floyd’s death, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) urged the president to “help to heal the racial divisions in this country.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) also took issue with Trump’s tweet about looting and shooting, but he said the majority of the president’s public remarks about the protests and his condolences over Floyd’s death were positive.
“I don’t like the way he’s done the tone on those, but I think a lot of people have picked up those [individual tweets] and just ignored everything else,” Lankford said.
The Senate returned to Washington after a one-week recess on Monday evening. Lawmakers were greeted by several hundred Black Lives Matter protesters in front of the U.S. Capitol, as well as dozens of Capitol Police officers, some of whom wore riot gear.
Meanwhile, at the White House, Trump delivered a surprise address from the Rose Garden in which he threatened to deploy the U.S. military to protest sites unless governors “dominate the streets” with an “overwhelming law enforcement presence.”
As he spoke, police flash-bang explosions could be heard nearby at Lafayette Park across from the White House, where hundreds of D.C. National Guard troops used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful groups of protesters.
After delivering his remarks, Trump then walked out of the White House and across the cleared park to St. John’s Church, where a fire had broken out during protests on Sunday night. He held up a copy of the Bible and posed for a photo-op with members of his Cabinet.