In a video conference call with governors Monday, President Donald Trump called them “weak” for not being able to control the nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, suggesting that they use the National Guard to “dominate” protesters.
Trump praised the National Guard response in Minneapolis, saying it “cut through [protesters] like butter” while calling on state leaders to adopt more brutal tactics to put down the uprisings.
“You have to dominate. 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,” the president said on the call.
One participant on the call told CBS News that the president’s words and tone were “unhinged.”
Protests over the police violence stemming from the death of George Floyd broke out in cities all over the country over the weekend. Videos and images of cities burning and police brutalizing protesters went viral over the weekend. Dozens of journalists have been assaulted and arrested by police while trying to cover the protests.
Trump hasn’t backed down in inflaming tensions. On Sunday, he lashed out at a host of familiar political scapegoats, including the media, antifa, and Democrats. He said he would designate antifa as a terrorist group, and Attorney General Bill Barr promised to use the power of the federal government to investigate any protesters inciting violence.
“Federal law enforcement actions will be directed at apprehending and charging the violent radical agitators who have hijacked peaceful protest and are engaged in violations of federal law,” Barr said in a statement Sunday.
That tone and scapegoating continued into Trump’s call with governors Monday. The call was originally meant to feature Vice President Mike Pence, who has forged relationships with governors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump said on the call that the violence is “coming from the radical left” but also noted looters “that figure they can get free stuff” like television sets. “You have every one of these guys on tape,” he said. “Why aren’t you prosecuting them? Now, the harder you are, the tougher you are, the less likely you’re going to be hit.”
The president specifically named New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia as cities that weren’t doing enough to crack down on protests. “Most of you are weak,” he said. “I have a friend [who] lives in Los Angeles — they say all the storefronts are gone. They’re all broken and gone. The merchandise is gone. It’s a shame.”
Illinois governor J.B Pritzker confronted Trump on the calling, saying he needs to call for peace and not further inflame tensions, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“It’s been inflammatory, and it’s not OK for that officer to choke George Floyd to death but we have to call for calm. We have to have police reform called for. We’ve called out our National Guard and our State Police, but the rhetoric that’s coming out of the White House is making it worse,” Pritzker said on the call. “And I need to say that people are feeling real pain out there. And we’ve got to have national leadership in calling for calm and making sure that we’re addressing the concerns of the legitimate peaceful protestors. That will help us to bring order.”
Trump responded: “OK, well thank you very much, J.B. I don’t like your rhetoric very much either because I watched your response to coronavirus, and I don’t like your rhetoric either. I think you could have done a much better job, frankly.”
Trump also called on governors to pass laws banning the burning of the American flag. “I’m not a believer in flag-burning,” the president told governors. “And I would think that if a state wanted to try to pass a law that you’re not allowed to burn flags, with a certain punishment — a strong punishment — I would think that the United States government would be backing you up all the way.”
State laws against flag-burning would fly in the face of a landmark 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. Johnson, which held that burning the flag was constitutionally protected speech under the first amendment.
It was not the first time Trump has called for banning flag-burning. He also did so in late November 2016, just after winning the presidential election.
Not every governor was on the call with Trump Monday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear reportedly missed the call because he was meeting with the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March after police entered her home in the middle of the night while executing a no-knock warrant. Taylor’s death has also been a motivation for protests, especially in Louisville, Kentucky.
At a press conference after the meeting, Beshear passed the microphone to Taylor’s mom, Tamika Palmer, who spoke at length about her daughter’s life and the protests that have sprung up after her death. “This is so much bigger than her, but we can’t get justice with violence,” she said.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.