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President Donald Trump has spent much of his adult life building his brand around racial divisions.
So much of Trump’s business and political career has hinged on moments of racial strife: from the full-page ads he took out to condemn the Central Park Five in New York in the 1980s to the groundwork he laid for his own presidential bid by promoting the Obama “birther” conspiracy theory to his refusal in 2017 to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
Now, as protesters swarmed the White House for a second night, Trump’s tone lurched between support for the frustrated crowds and cheerleading a sterner approach to law enforcement.
The president spent Saturday night inside the White House residence, as crowds gathered again in Lafayette Park. Despite Trump’s condemnation on Saturday of the violence against George Floyd — the African-American man who died in Minnesota at the hands of a white police officer — he has yet to soothe a divided nation. Even his best efforts tend to end with a dig at liberal groups.
"I understand the pain that people are feeling,” Trump said from the launch of SpaceX in Florida on Saturday. “We support the right of peaceful protests and we hear their pleas, but what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with the memory of George Floyd. The violence and vandalism is being led by antifa and other radical left-wing groups who are terrorizing the innocent, destroying jobs, hurting businesses and burning down buildings."
Playing a consoler-in-chief has never been Trump’s strong suit as a leader. He rose to power in 2016 by sowing division and denigrating wide swaths of people — from Gold Star families to Mexican immigrants to the disabled to Muslims — while inciting fear about the future of the country.
Several Trump allies and former aides acknowledge this is a sensitive time for the nation but remain unsure as to whether Trump can lead at this particular moment. “This is more of a time for healing than anything else, and they need to figure out a way to take the tensions down,” said one former senior administration official. “There are people around him who know that. The question is: Will they say anything?”
For the second night in a row chaos erupted outside the White House. Hundreds gathered holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “stop killing our people” and chanting “George Floyd,” “No justice, No peace,” and “I can’t breathe.”
Police stood at the front of the park, at times pressing forward in tense skirmishes with protesters towards the front of the line who pushed into their riot shields or threw objects overhead. More Secret Service than usual could be seen pacing the roof of the White House as the president’s helicopter landed on the South Lawn, and just a few hundred yards away people yelled “F--- Trump.”
Janice Ford, an African-American woman who owns an elderly care business in Maryland, stood on the steps of the nearby St. John’s Church to support the protest. She said she is “fed up with it.”
“The latest incident really touched my heart and I just wanted to do my part. It’s very important. Our black men are being killed for no reason — it feels like a family member. It hurts so deep,” Ford said. She said the president’s response has been “cold.”
“I don’t think he knows how to address a situation like this because he is ignorant. Anyone with feelings or emotions speaks from the heart and this man doesn’t know how to do that," she added.
The White House said Trump’s record as a private citizen and president is one of “fighting for inclusion and advocating for the equal treatment of all,” said deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere.
“Anyone who suggests otherwise is only seeking to sow division and ignore the president’s work for underserved communities, including during his time in office with groundbreaking criminal justice reform, the creation of Opportunity Zones, building the most inclusive economy in American history, and prioritizing our Nation’s HBCUs,” Deere said.
By late evening on Saturday, military police from D.C.'s National Guard had arrived in front of the White House to bolster the police presence. Maj. Gen. William Walker, the local commander, said they had been sent by the secretary of the Army at the request of the U.S. Park Police.
Demonstrators nonetheless sparred with police well into the night along 16th Street, a major north-south thoroughfare that divides the city in two, setting a vehicle ablaze. Plumes of smoke could be seen wafting near the Washington Monument, the distinctive and symbolic obelisk on the National Mall.
In similarly calamitous scenes around the country, rioters hijacked peaceful protests, clashing with police and vandalizing storefronts, smashing windows and spray-painting anti-police slogans on buildings.
In New York City, violence erupted anew on Saturday night as a police vehicle was set ablaze and video captured a another police vehicle plowing through protesters who were throwing cones, garbage bags and water bottles at the cops.
Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed protesters he said came to the city from out of town to incite violence against police officers, echoing claims by leader in other cities despite evidence that much, if not most of the chaos was homegrown.
“Anyone who is a peaceful protester, it’s time to go home. The point’s been made,” de Blasio said during a brief television interview Saturday night. He defended the response of the city's police, though said he regretted the incident had escalated to the point of violence.
“I’m not going to blame officers who were trying to deal with an absolutely impossible situation,” de Blasio said at a subsequent press conference in Brooklyn Saturday night. “I wish the officers had found a different approach but let’s begin at the beginning — the protesters in that video did the wrong thing to surround that police car, period.”
The president had little to say as the ugly scenes unfolded, retweeting clips of his appearance at the SpaceX launch in Florida as aides debated whether he should give an Oval Office address on the unrest gripping the country.
It would be a particularly fraught topic for Trump: Long before he became president and oversaw a deeply polarized electorate, he was fascinated with racial divisiveness that he frequently tried to exploit for his own personal or political gains.
“Central Park 5 is such a direct and complementary example to what is happening now,” said Timothy O’Brien, author of TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald and former senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.
“Trump took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to say those young men were guilty and he continued to say that until he ran in the 2016 campaign, even though they had been exonerated. He inserted himself into one of the most highly charged moments to get publicity for himself, not to shine a light on social justice. What is so disturbing and unfortunate now is he is doing the same thing, but he is president,” O’Brien added.
Trump asked the Department of Justice and FBI on Wednesday to expedite investigations into Floyd’s death. But he has also used this moment to bludgeon critics such as Democratic mayors, fan the flames of Americans’ anger, and cast himself as a staunch defender of law and order. The latter move harkens back to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign when he also cast himself as tough on crime, following a summer of riots and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King.
On Saturday morning, Trump decried protests outside of the White House and urged his base to stage a counter-protest — a move allies saw as standing tough and critics viewed as the president egging on a potentially violent clash. One White House official said Trump meant it as more of a question than a statement or suggestion.
“The professional managed so-called ‘protesters’ at the White House had little to do with the memory of George Floyd,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning. “There were just there to cause trouble. The Secret Service handled them easily. Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???”
There were few signs of counterprotesters on the streets of D.C. -- a city that voted overwhelmingly against Trump in 2016 -- on Saturday night, however.
One Republican close to the White House said Trump aides were irritated that mayors and state leaders could not control the violence or protests in their city, viewing it as a problem on the local levels.
Trump started to lean on racial strife as a tactic during his New York City real estate career, said two of his biographers.
In the late 1970s, Trump bought a New York City hotel in midtown Manhattan called the Commodore and made it his mission to renovate it as a way to overcome the protests and urban strife from the 1960s, said Michael D’Antonio, author of the biography “The Truth about Trump.”
“He saw his capitalist impulses as a remedy to urban decline and credited himself in excess,” D’Antonio added. “This was the mid-1970s, and he was already trying to take advantage of the idea that inner cities are dangerous and require a white rescuer.”
In October 1973, the Department of Justice sued the Trump Management Corporation for refusing to rent or negotiating rental rates on the basis of race and color. This prompted Trump’s first of many public comments to the New York Times that the charges were “ridiculous.”
With the help of his lawyer, Roy Cohn, the Trump family countersued the department for $100 million in what they called “bias” damages, in an attempt to turn the racial charges on their head. Ultimately, the Trump family reached a settlement with the federal government in 1975 and at the time, Trump made sure to note the settlement was not an admission of guilt.
In 1989, Trump took out four full page ads in New York city papers to argue for bringing back the death penalty in light of the Central Park attack for which five black teenagers were falsely charged and sent to prison. “I want to hate these murderers and I always will,” Trump said in the May 1989 newspaper ads. “I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them.”
Years later, Trump never fully backed down from those Central Park Five comments despite all of the evidence the teens were innocent.
The tough-on-crime ethos has extended to Trump’s political career, during which he has tended to double down on the instinct to fight.
On Saturday, his comments on the aftermath of Floyd’s death focused on the might of police and the Secret Service and cast African Americans — whom the Trump campaign is aggressively courting — as outside of his own political base. “MAGA is Make America Great Again. By the way, they love African American people, they love Black people. MAGA loves the black people,” Trump told reporters before boarding a flight.
Race, for Trump, remains an us-versus-them mentality that comes from his childhood, said biographer D’Antonio. “Trump was a superrich, white kid of privilege of the 1950s whose life was overturned by the 1960s. He never got over it,” he added.