President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to rally at the White House, inviting a potentially dangerous mix of protesters after people angry about the death of an unarmed black man in Minnesota police custody skirmished with the Secret Service on Friday.
He threatened “the unlimited power” of the U.S. military to clamp down on demonstrations, tweeting from Air Force One as he traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch of a SpaceX spacecraft. The military is “ready, willing and able” to assist, Trump said earlier.
In a series of tweets early on Saturday, Trump also seemed to revel in the potential for violence outside the White House, warning that Friday’s protesters would have been met by “the most vicious dogs” and “most ominous weapons” had they dared to breach the fence around the property.
He depicted Secret Services agents as eager to battle the demonstrators, and later issued an appeal to his supporters to assemble: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???”
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser rebuked the president in her own series of tweets, calling him “a scared man. Afraid/alone” and saying she stood with people peacefully protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this week.
Those demonstrations were not altogether peaceful, though. The Secret Service said in a statement that it arrested six people and that “multiple” personnel from the agency were injured when protesters assaulted them with “bricks, rocks, bottles, fireworks and other items.”
Videos from Friday’s demonstration showed protesters chasing journalists from the park and throwing objects at officers wearing riot gear, and Secret Service officers responding with pepper spray.
Contrary to Trump’s assertion that Bowser “wouldn’t let the D.C. police get involved,” the Secret Service said the city’s police and U.S. Park Police were also on the scene of the protests.
Call for Restraint
Bowser called a press conference on Saturday to discuss the situation. “I call upon our city and our nation to exercise great restraint, even while the president tries to divide us,” she said.
Trump told reporters he had “no idea” if his boosters would assemble on Saturday night at the White House.
“I heard that MAGA wanted to be there — that a lot of MAGA was going to be there,” Trump said as he departed the White House, using the acronym for “Make America Great Again.”
Washington on Friday entered “Phase One” of its reopening from coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions. Large gatherings of people are currently prohibited.
Trump also tweeted that “ANTIFA and the Radical Left” were stoking protests against Floyd’s death, a day after saying he understood the “pain” that demonstrators were feeling. “Antifa,” short for anti-fascist, is sometimes used to describe militant left-wing activists.
Attorney General William Barr made a brief televised statement to make similar comments, tying the protests to “groups of outside radicals and agitators exploiting the situation.”
“It is a federal crime to cross state lines or to use interstate facilities to incite or participate in violent rioting. We will enforce these laws,” Barr said. He took no questions.
Minnesota officials, including the state’s Democratic governor, echoed Trump’s suggestion that organized agitators were exploiting anger about the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man.
“The situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd,” Governor Tim Walz said. “It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities.”
Video showed a white police officer in Minneapolis kneeling on Floyd’s neck to the point the arrested man could no longer breathe. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
In Washington, demonstrators gathered in a park across from the White House around dusk on Friday, briefly causing the compound to be locked down. It was just one of a string of protests around the country, from Atlanta to Oakland, California.
Trump said he “watched every move” of Friday’s protests outside the White House, and couldn’t have felt more safe.”
Had protesters breached the complex’s fence, they would have faced “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons,” Trump said. “That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”
Bowser said in her briefing that Trump’s reference to attack dogs was “no subtle reminder to African-Americans of segregationists that let dogs out on women, children and innocent people in the South.” She called the comments “an attack on humanity.”
Friday night’s protests came on a day after Trump appeared to threaten violence against certain demonstrators, tweeting overnight that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The phrase echoed a remark made in 1967 by a white Miami police chief when announcing tougher policing policies for the Florida city’s black neighborhoods. In a rare reversal, Trump later said his tweet wasn’t intended as a threat, but merely meant to discourage looting that has historically coincided with violence.
Trump also said he’d spoken with Floyd’s family and that he understood the hurt and pain of demonstrators.
“We have peaceful protesters, and support the rights for peaceful protesters,” Trump said Friday. “We can’t allow a situation like in Minneapolis to descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos.