By Jeff Mason
KENOSHA, Wis. (Reuters) - President Donald Trump defied requests to stay away and visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, not to urge racial healing after a white officer shot a Black man in the back but to express support for law enforcement in a city rocked by civil unrest.
With the United States polarized over issues of racial injustice and police use of force and with the Republican president trailing in opinion polls, Trump is appealing to his base of white supporters with a "law and order" message.
An Aug. 31-Sept. 1 Reuters/Ipsos national poll shows that 40% of registered voters support him, compared with 47% for his Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden, numbers largely unchanged the last three weeks.
It also shows only 8% of Americans view crime as a major problem confronting the country and 53% remain sympathetic to anti-racism protests, nearly unchanged from 52% in a similar poll in late July.
Trump has largely overlooked the racial wounds caused by police use of force and played down the more than 180,000 U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, even though the poll shows 78% remain “very” or “somewhat” concerned about it.
Nearly 60% say Trump is at least partly responsible for the protracted school and business closures due to the virus, as well as for the high number of coronavirus cases in the United States.
On Tuesday, Trump threatened to send more federal officers into cities governed by Democratic mayors even if local officials objected, saying, "At some point ... we'll just have to do it ourselves."
Trump did not visit Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a white police officer fired at his back seven times on Aug. 23. He did not meet Blake's family either, but did meet with his mother's pastors.
He promised instead to rebuild Kenosha and provide more federal spending to Wisconsin, a political battleground state that Trump won narrowly in 2016 and badly needs to keep in his column as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.
Biden has accused Trump of stoking violence with his rhetoric. Biden's campaign on Tuesday seized on Trump's trip to Kenosha, accusing his administration of seeing "violence as a winning electoral strategy."
The president visited a burned-out furniture store that was destroyed in the upheaval and then a makeshift command center to praise National Guard troops who were called in to reinforce local police after several nights of peaceful protests gave way to looting, arson and gunfire.
"These are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror," Trump told local business leaders in a high school gym.
Peaceful demonstrators have complained that violent agitators, often white, have hijacked their protests with property damage. But many have also sharply criticized the police, saying the United States needs to completely rethink its law enforcement practices.
"To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology. ... We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric," Trump said, adding that without his help Kenosha would have "burned to the ground."
APPEAL TO 'CHANGE THE HEARTS'
The visit was not completely without empathy. While Trump dodged questions about systemic racism and problems in policing, he did say that he felt "terribly for anybody who goes through that," referring to the police shooting, and that he was honored to meet with the co-pastors of Blake's mother, the only two Black people at Trump's roundtable.
Pastor James Ward appealed for greater efforts to "change the hearts of people" and bring healing and peace to the community, while his wife and co-pastor Sharon Ward said, "I think it's important to have Black people at the table to help solve the problem."
The state's Democratic governor and the city's Democratic mayor both had urged Trump not to visit so as to avoid inflaming tensions and allow citizens to heal. But when he showed up, the president pledged $1 million in federal support to Kenosha law enforcement, $4 million to small businesses, and $42 million to public safety statewide, contrasting that with leftist calls to "defund the police."
Much of the country has rallied to the side of civil rights since George Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck. The country was reckoning with that case when Blake was shot as he entered his car on Aug. 23.
Kenosha has become one of the flashpoint cities where anti-racist demonstrators have clashed with Trump supporters who have converged on protest sites, sometimes openly carrying arms while vowing to protect property from looters.
A 17-year-old Trump supporter has been charged with killing two people and wounding another with a semi-automatic rifle in Kenosha. Trump defended the white teenager, who faces six criminal counts, and declined to condemn violence from his supporters.
But in Portland, Oregon, site of three months of nightly protests that have often turned violent, a Trump supporter was shot dead on Saturday and the president lamented that "they executed a man in the street."
The president took credit for restoring peace in Kenosha since National Guard and federal law enforcement reinforcements were sent in. Although Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers called in more National Guard troops on his own authority, Trump did send in about 200 federal law enforcement officials.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additonal reporting by Andrea Shalal and Phil Stewart; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller)