On Monday morning, a few hours before President Donald Trump lambasted Joe Biden’s supporters as the “radical left working to get the Anarchists out of jail” and told governors they were “weak” for failing to crack down on protesters, his aides were emailing supporters with a memo that sought to cast the President as a unifying figure.
“Message of the day,” read the subject line of Monday’s talking points from the White House, which are circulated to supporters as guidance to talk to the press and were obtained by TIME. “President Trump: we are working toward a more just society, but that means building up, not tearing down.”
This may be the message some Republicans want Trump to telegraph at this moment of crisis, but it bears little resemblance to what Trump has actually been saying. As the protests over George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer turned violent across the country last weekend – including in Trump’s backyard – the only time the public heard from the President was on social media in a series of divisive posts. He called the protesters in Minneapolis “thugs,” raged against the media for “doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy” and continually slammed Democratic officials, who he said let the protests spin out of control.
The discrepancy between the President’s incendiary rhetoric and the line GOP members are expected to tow has once again exposed the fine line Republicans have been forced to walk since Trump took over the party. For years, they’ve uncomfortably shrugged it off. But with Trump’s re-election bid underway, even some Republican stalwarts have acknowledged that Trump’s latest reaction to a national tragedy could have disastrous electoral implications in November.
Even before Floyd’s death unleashed this wave of racial unrest, the President was facing dueling economic and public health crises precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Some Republicans already thought the combination was dangerous for Trump’s prospects. Now they think the addition of racial tensions could prove fatal — and hurt GOP lawmakers seeking re-election in their own state races. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last week found that Biden holds a 5-point lead over Trump, even when factoring in low voter turnout, and that Trump’s disapproval rating had increased by 7 points since late March. Polls in key states where Democrats are trying to flip Senate seats, like Montana, Maine and Arizona, showed Republican incumbents trailing before the protests started.
While some Republicans caution it is still too early to predict the party’s demise, others say the writing is on the wall. “Trump’s re-election chances are going down in flames with that Autozone building, police precinct building and burning police cars,” says Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and Trump supporter. “It’s hard to see how these riots don’t boost Joe Biden’s claim to be the Alka-Seltzer America needs to sooth its stomach right now.”
Several Republicans are already working to distance themselves from the President’s increasingly divisive rhetoric. “I do think some of his tweets have not been helpful and it would be helpful if he would change the tone of his message,” Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey told reporters Monday in Philadelphia, one of the cities ravaged by looting and riots.
“I think it’s just the opposite of the message that should be coming out of the White House,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who has not hesitated to criticize Trump for his handling of the coronavirus, said Sunday.
And Sen Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, said Sunday on Fox News that he had spoken with Trump after his controversial tweets about the protesters and urged him to emphasize the injustice of Floyd’s murder and the importance of non-violent demonstrations. “Those are not constructive tweets, without any question,” Scott said, noting that the President’s subsequent tweets after their conversation were “far more responsive.”
Even some Republicans who have not spoken out directly in recent days think Trump is squandering a political opportunity to reach the crucial voting bloc of white female suburban voters who handed the Democrats a decisive victory in the 2018 midterm elections. Strategists consider these voters to be critical for Republicans to retain the White House and the Senate, but the ABC News/Washington Post poll found Biden ahead with women by 28 points.
Some within the party don’t want to see Trump miss an opportunity to appear to be in total control of the crisis. One former Senate Republican communications aide suggested that Trump could still reach white suburban women by highlighting the racial inequities exposed by Floyd’s death and the benefits of peaceful protests — both issues with which that demographic is sympathetic — and deploy all of the tools at his disposal to maintain order, including the military, as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton suggested on Monday. “If he can’t contrast with the Democratic [city and state governments] and say ‘I will protect you,’ it’s a loss,” says the former Senate aide. “This is literally his only opportunity to make the crisis a win for him.”
By Monday evening, Trump had clearly taken that line of advice on board. As protesters gathered near the White House to demonstrate against police violence and racial inequalities, law enforcement used tear gas to force their exit. Trump then delivered a speech from the Rose Garden, where he announced that he was urging all governors to deploy the National Guard to restore order, and that if local officials did not comply he would take executive action and do it for them. He then walked to St. John’s church — tracing the same path where the protesters had been — which had been damaged in the Sunday night protests, to take a photograph with a Bible.
The display immediately dominated the national discourse, and for many Republicans, further exacerbated the fraught question of how to respond to the Trump’s increasingly extreme messaging. On Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, usually a vocal supporter of the President, declined to comment on Trump’s speech. So did Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who has often criticized the President. “These are times where my heart goes out to people,” Romney said Tuesday. “This is a challenging time for our country, and I’m really not going to be commenting on the daily developments that that are coming from the White House or elsewhere.”