President Donald Trump urged governors to impose “strong punishment” on anyone who engages in flag-burning, an act of protest protected by the First Amendment.
Trump’s comments in a Monday conference call with the governors followed a weekend of nationwide civil rights protests spurred by the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Though the demonstrations were largely peaceful, incidents of violence and looting occurred, especially after dark.
As videos went viral of the turmoil ― which included violent arrests and clashes between police and protesters ― Trump in the call encouraged the governors to get tougher. He berated most of them as being “weak” in their response so far, and threatened to deploy the military if they do not begin to “dominate.”
“We have a situation ― I was thinking about calling a number of you ― with flag burning,” Trump told governors, adding he is “not a believer” in that form of protest. He assured governors they would be backed by federal authorities in moving to punish flag burning, which the Supreme Court declared a lawful act of political expression in 1989.
“I would think that if a state wanted to try and pass a law not allowing you to burn flags with a certain punishment ― strong punishment ― I think the United States government would be backing you up all the way,” Trump said.
He acknowledged the Supreme Court ruling that has upheld flag-burning as constitutionally protected speech, but he claimed his appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to the high court could lead to a different outcome if the issue were brought up again.
He said that “against what a lot of people want,” the court was divided ― 5 to 4 ― in the decision legalizing flag burning. “And we have a different court and I think it’s time to review that,” he said.
Listen to the audio clip below.
Trump spent much of the weekend on Twitter conflating protesters marching for criminal justice with anarchists seeking to cause chaos and trying, via Twitter posts, to blame the widespread agitation on his Democratic rivals and the “radical Left.”
Except for his tweets, Trump had little to say as tumult raged across the nation during the weekend. He finally emerged Monday evening to deliver a brief, hard-edged speech in which he threatened to deploy the military if he deemed it necessary to quell violence. He made only the vaguest of mention the antiracism message motivating the vast majority of protesters.
During his discussion with governors, he called for the “total domination” and long-term imprisonment of protesters.
“Other countries, they’re watching this and they’re saying, ‘Boy, they’re really a pushover, and we can’t be a pushover,’” Trump said.