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Trump campaign gets its cue: Go all-in on ‘law and order’

Within minutes of President Donald Trump’s address to the nation Monday, his campaign aides began to mobilize.

They cut a video of his speech. They promoted a black-and-white photo of him striding out of the White House to a partially burned church. One tweeted: “Triumph. Leadership. Law and Order.”

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Days after massive protests broke out over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the campaign had finally received its directive. Staffers are now embracing and promoting Trump’s threats to send the military into cities to help quell looting and vandalism in the hopes it will help the president win over seniors and suburban women, even if it comes at the expense of black voters.

It was an uncharacteristically sluggish start for a campaign that is used to swiftly pushing out talking points, quickly creating items to sell on its online store and almost instantly buying Facebook ads as Trump careens from crisis to crisis: the Russia probe, impeachment, the brink of a military confrontation with Iran — the list goes on and on.

In this instance, the campaign was less aggressive than usual because Trump and his White House aides spent several days trying to determine which direction to take as thousands took to the streets to protest police brutality and entrenched racism after the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed at the hands of Minnesota police while repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”

“The problem is until you know what he’s going to do, what do you say?” said a former White House official who worked on Trump’s first campaign.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, acknowledged the campaign took “a little while” to determine what to do about the protests but said it’s understandable that the president and his aides “take some time to look at ‘what does it mean?’”

“He’s in the middle of a pandemic. He’s in the middle of China and the economy, then you get hit with this thing in Minnesota,” he said.

Trump began his fourth year in office expecting to campaign on a list of his self-proclaimed accomplishments, including a booming stock market, rising wages and job growth. But then came a one-two punch: First the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States, then a decimated economy that left the equivalent of 1 in 4 American workers unemployed.

And then came the massive protests in more than 100 cities on a scale not seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. more than half a century ago.

With just five months left before the election, Trump aides and allies privately worry the president no longer has the time to make up the ground he’s lost over the past few months. Polls show presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading Trump in most national polls and in many key states.

“Lots of presidents have run amid tough economic times, lots of presidents have run in wartime, lots of presidents have run when the country was fundamentally, even violently, divided,” presidential historian Jon Meacham said. “But Trump is seeking reelection amid all three. And he’s already the most unconventional president in our history.”

Staffers dispute their response lagged but five Republicans and former aides grumbled about the delay. Initially, the campaign focused on criticizing the media for failing to draw more attention to Trump’s comments Saturday in which he called Floyd’s death a “grave tragedy” and decried the “violence and vandalism” of the protests.

Aides also attacked Biden for what they called a delay in commenting about the protests, and chided his staff for donating to a group that posts bail for jailed protesters in Minneapolis.

Developing News on Nationwide Protests

“At least 13 of his campaign staffers bragged about donating to a fund that posts bail for people arrested for rioting in Minneapolis,” said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh. “The Biden team, then, is effectively funding the rioters who are burning Minneapolis to the ground. That’s egregious.”

Biden blasted Trump and his team’s initial rhetoric in a speech on Tuesday. “I promise you this,” Biden said, “I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”

Indeed, Trump’s initial attempts at a measured response was complicated by his own tweets, which included threats of violence against looters using terminology that traces back to a Miami police chief who vowed to use violence against black protesters during 1967 protests. Many were calling on the president to speak to the nation. He resisted.

The tweets came as Trump’s campaign is trying to put a dent in the overwhelming support Democrats have among black voters, particularly in several key states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — each of which Trump won in 2016 by less than 1 percentage point.

Trump earned just 8 percent of the black vote in 2016. Prior Republican presidential candidates have also struggled to make inroads with African American voters.

Georgetown Law professor Shon Hopwood, who advised the White House on a criminal justice reform bill, said Trump doesn’t get enough credit for his record with the African American community. Trump often touts his funding for historically black colleges and universities, clemencies and the creation of Opportunity Zones, which are designed to bolster investment in poor areas.

Hopwood said he had hoped the administration would tackle policies to provide more oversight of law enforcement in the wake of Floyd’s killing. But by Monday night, Trump had taken a different route.

In a Rose Garden address, Trump fell back on a familiar theme — law and order — before walking across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church, a church presidents have attended for two centuries and that had been damaged in a fire during protests the previous night.

“I am your president of law and order,” he declared before making the trek, as law enforcement cleared protesters outside the White House gates. “Where there is no justice, there is no liberty.”

Trump had also urged the nation’s governors to act more forcefully to counter the unrest on a conference call Monday. The president even declared he would designate the loosely defined group of radical activists known as antifa a terrorist organization, despite questionable legal authority to do so.

“Destruction is not an act of seeking justice or peace — it is an act of domestic terrorism. President Trump is the law-and-order president,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said Tuesday. “He will do everything in his power to protect our beautiful country.”

The campaign and White House quickly tried to spread Trump’s message. He is “focused on his administration and how events outside his control affect his plans, particularly for his reelection chances,” a Trump ally said. “His first instinct is to look at it from that perspective.”

“President @realDonaldTrump delivers a powerful speech on LAW & ORDER in the United States of America!” his campaign tweeted alongside a video of the speech.

Just after midnight, the White House released a 30-second video set against dramatic music showing Trump’s walk to the boarded church, where he posed for the cameras, gripping a Bible.

Trump was criticized, even by Republicans, for clearing peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park with what appeared to be smoke bombs and flash bangs so he could walk to the church. But many conservatives praised Trump’s move.

“It was important for the president to be there and say we will not be cowed by terrorists,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters Tuesday.

“Strength. Freedom. Justice. Rule of Law,” tweeted Fox News host Laura Ingraham, a Trump supporter.

A former Trump adviser faulted the campaign for not being more aggressive just after the protests started. Initially, polls showed only one out of three people approved of Trump’s response to the evolving events. But the person acknowledged the president’s own indecisiveness was the root of the problem.

The person said Trump will never be the kind of president who gives the empathetic speech that many want — the president’s strengths lie in upending the existing norms for a president.

“I wish he were the guy who could have given that speech, but we didn’t hire him for that,” the former aide said. “We hired him to disrupt a rotting system.”


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