Former Justice Department official says Trump is 'basically calling for the shooting of protesters'

Suzanne Smalley
·Reporter

The former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division told Yahoo News she feels “absolute and total disgust” over President Trump’s tweet Friday morning that seemed to imply protesters demonstrating against police brutality in Minneapolis should be shot.

“Here we have a situation where we should have the Justice Department on the ground in Minneapolis, working with community leaders, activists, [and] local officials showing real leadership in this moment, the president should be showing leadership, and instead he’s basically calling for the shooting of protesters,” said Vanita Gupta, who served as acting assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration.

Attorney Vanita Gupta serves as a panelist at the National Town Hall at Walter E. Washington Convention Center on September 21, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Earl Gibson III/WireImage via Getty Images)
Vanita Gupta, who served as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration, pictured in 2017. (Earl Gibson III/WireImage via Getty Images)

“Every day is a new low. In my wildest dreams I had a complete failure of imagination about how affected we would be by this president’s fundamental lack of decency and leadership.”

Gupta, who is now president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that if she were still at the Justice Department she would already be on the ground in Minneapolis working with community leaders and the family of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck Monday night. The city has been rocked by sometimes violent protests since footage of the encounter became public.

Trump’s response is “really corrosive and is really damaging at a time when people are in such pain,” Gupta said in an interview with Yahoo’s “Skullduggery” podcast.

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” Trump tweeted early Friday morning. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Twitter subsequently flagged the post for “glorifying violence.” Trump later seemed to walk back his Friday morning tweets, saying they were “spoken as a fact, not as a statement.”

Gupta helmed the Civil Rights Division for nearly three years under President Barack Obama. She said that during her tenure, 15 of America’s 17,000 police departments were under consent decrees, which are agreements between local authorities and the Justice Department to overhaul police forces that have been accused of civil rights violations. The office also ran investigations probing abuses in another 25 police departments.

The Justice Department has announced it is conducting a civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death, and on Friday the Minnesota public safety commissioner announced that Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was seen with his knee on Floyd’s neck, had been arrested on charges of third-degree murder. In a statement Friday, Attorney General William Barr confirmed the federal civil rights probe, saying that the images seen on the video of Floyd’s detention were “harrowing and deeply disturbing.”

But Gupta charged that the Trump administration has abandoned civil rights enforcement, effectively dismantling much of the work accomplished during her tenure.

“This is work that this Justice Department and this administration have completely walked away from — and, in fact, [they] have supported aggressive treatment of people during arrests,” she said.

Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News

Gupta said the Minneapolis Police Department was on her “radar” when she ran the Civil Rights Division, from 2014 to 2017, largely due to the death of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old African-American man who was shot by white officers in Minneapolis in November 2015. The Minneapolis Police Department officers involved in that shooting were not prosecuted.

After the Clark incident, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) division of the Justice Department worked with the Minneapolis Police Department, said Gupta, providing technical assistance and investigating the treatment of protesters.

Gupta said the 2016 police shooting in next-door St. Paul of school cafeteria worker Philando Castile also contributed to her office’s knowledge of the policing culture in the Twin Cities.

“They were awful, awful incidents and highlighted just how fraught the tensions were locally,” she said.

“Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department have had a long history of really painful incidents of killings of unarmed civilians, of race relations broken — that’s why you’re seeing the kind of level of frustration pouring out into the streets every night right now.”

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