WASHINGTON — As dozens of American cities have recoiled with violence, anger and property damage, President Donald Trump has been silent, save for his angry Twitter finger.
“A national Oval Office address is not going to stop Antifa,” his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, told Fox News on Monday, blaming the amorphous left-wing group, which the White House has also sought to blame for violent protests, for the president’s absence from the public stage.
As strong as the nation’s divisions have been under Trump, there has been rare agreement on the point McEnany implicitly endorsed: Neither on the left nor the right are there many who believe Trump could deliver the kind of healing address to the country that most presidents try to muster in times of national fissure.
“There’s an overwhelming body of evidence out there about how incapable most Americans think he is of handling a moment like this, someone whose whole entire political predicate was based on division,” said Cornell Belcher, formerly a pollster for Barack Obama. “How, in a moment when we need a unified voice, can he step in and lead? He can’t.”
Not only has Trump avoided a formal address to the nation about the killing of a black man in Minnesota at the hands of police and the string of increasingly violent protests that have followed. After staying out of sight Sunday, his schedule Monday had no public events, a rarity for the media-hungry president.
During a private call with governors Monday, the president, who tweeted Saturday that looting leads to “shooting,” continued to push for a harsher crackdown by police.
“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, and you’ll never see this stuff again,” Trump told governors, according to audio of the call obtained by CBS News.
A person with knowledge of Trump’s call with governors described the president as “bellicose,” raising the possibility of military action and describing the situation as a war.
“Most of you are weak,” Trump said, berating the governors and urging them to “dominate” the protesters, according to a second person on the call.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, took issue with Trump’s claim that “the world is laughing” at the urban uprisings across America.
“Nobody’s laughing here,” he said. “We’re in pain, we’re crying. We saw a man lose his life in front of them — our challenge is social trust, social compact and reestablishing faith.”
Walz told reporters that he “thanked” Trump for his input but made it clear he disagreed. “A posture of a force on the ground is unsustainable militarily, it’s unsustainable socially because it’s the antithesis of how we live,” he said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., also issued a statement calling Trump’s attempt to berate the governors on the front lines “deeply disturbing” and evidence of an intent to “sow the seeds of hatred and division.”
“We must reject this way of thinking. This is a moment that calls for empathy, humanity and unity,” she said.
Administration officials are debating some sort of public response, possibly as soon as Monday, but have not settled on what form it might take.
Trump’s last Oval Office address, during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, was widely panned as a listless performance that did little to calm a nervous nation. Trump made misstatements during that speech about the scope of a travel ban he was announcing that caused many Americans traveling in Europe to panic, generating a spike in travel that clogged airports and, some experts believe, played a noticeable role in spreading the virus.
Aides are contemplating organizing a so-called “listening session,” but past efforts at such events have almost always been overtaken by a president intent on doing most of the talking himself.
On Friday night, Trump was whisked into the underground bunker at the White House as skirmishes intensified just outside the gates, according to an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity. He has been holed up in the White House since Saturday night, remaining out of sight as some buildings near its perimeter burned.
Over the last 48 hours, as police and rioters continued to clash just a few hundred feet from his residence, he has continued to tweet as though he were a bystander, attacking the media and left-wing groups he is selectively blaming for the violence and claiming a stronger political position than nearly any poll shows him to be in at the moment.
“NOVEMBER 3RD,” he wrote in one tweet Monday, putting the day of the election in all capital letters without context. In one, he attacked Joe Biden. In another, he put his own name in quotation marks while complaining about a “Heavily biased Democrat Poll.”
Four years ago, Trump received his party’s nomination in Cleveland, laying out a dark view of the country’s problems and declaring, “I alone can fix it.”
But now, with that city and dozens of others aflame, his silence in the face of a country crying out for leadership offered a stark reminder that he has always emphasized fighting enemies and stoking his base — the kinds of impulses that are counter to the role most presidents assume in such crises.
The contrast between Trump and his predecessors became even clearer when former President Obama on Monday released an essay titled “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,” which offered support, advice and hope for the protesters while denouncing “the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms.”
Even if Trump wanted to deliver a healing address, it would be difficult for him to get past his image. Trump has staked his presidency on a “LAW & ORDER” message, a phrase he tweeted in all caps over the weekend, and the strong undercurrent of white identity politics buzzing beneath his words and actions.
He spent months denouncing former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for lack of patriotism after he took a knee in 2016 to protest the kinds of police brutality and racism at the heart of the current protests.
In 2017, he notoriously defended some of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville as “very fine people” and, in recent weeks, similarly defended the white, gun-wielding protesters who stormed some state capitals to protest stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic.
Trump has rarely polled above 50% approval and currently averages about 44%, with most Americans holding strong opinions about him. Belcher pointed to polls showing some 70% of African Americans believe he is racist and overall majorities believing he is divisive and lacking presidential temperament.
“We’ve had three years of pot-stirring from the White House,” said Timothy Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “His go-to has always been to stir anger, to highlight and inflame, and he did it with glee and for political gain and because he just likes to do it.”
Those qualities, while troubling to many Americans, mattered less before the explosion of problems during the fourth year of Trump’s term.
“Imagine you are in Trump’s shoes you have been dealing with the virus, you’ve been dealing with the economy, and you’ve been dealing with China, and then suddenly there’s this whole eruption,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and Trump ally. “You’re trying to wrap your head around this.”
Gingrich tried to reach Trump with an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite television show, on Monday. He wants a national address, but does not see the president’s role as a healer. Instead, he is eager to see him define a “civil war” between people who want “to destroy the country” and those who want to keep it.
“It’s not going to calm things because the people you’re up against don’t want to calm anything,” Gingrich said.
Trump may take that advice, but even some conservatives are turned off by such rhetoric, and several have been urging a public address. One person involved in the reelection effort called the White House response puzzling and lacking in strategy.
“Remember when presidents would address the nation to reassure us?” wrote Eric Erickson, a conservative blogger, on Twitter.
Anthony Scaramucci, a short-lived communications director in the Trump’s White House who has since become a critic, said the president lacks the self-confidence to bring in someone like Obama or one of his top aides to lead the type of bipartisan commission that other presidents might consider in a racial crisis. He won’t take advice from experienced presidential counselors as others might.
As a result, the messaging from the White House is “as clunky as a high school band in warm-up,” he said.
But many closest to the cities, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have said Trump would be better off staying on the sidelines. “His rhetoric only inflames that, and he should sometimes just stop talking,” she said Sunday in an interview on CBS.
“It’s probably going to do more harm than good in the sense that you have to assume he’ll deliver a conciliatory message, which will then be followed by tweets and statements that will likely contradict that message,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been a Trump critic.