In them, Trump seemed to imply protesters could be shot and the US military could become involved if violence continued in the city, which has been gripped with unrest after disturbing video emerged of a white police officer pinning a black man to the street by his neck as he gasped for breath. The man, George Floyd, died while in police custody.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen,” Trump wrote on his personal account. “Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” The White House, defying Twitter’s objection, later tweeted the same remark on its official account.
The message marked a distinct return to form for the President, whose initial response to the situation — calling the video “shocking” and demanding justice — was itself markedly different from how he had approached instances of police brutality in the past.
Even the language in his tweet seemed to harken back to tough-on-crime heavy handedness that is now under scrutiny for disproportionately affecting men of color.
“I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” said Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in 1967 as he announced a campaign against crime that included using dogs, guns and a “stop and frisk” policy.
“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” Headley said in the news conference, according to an article from the period in The New York Times.
Since then, tactics like “stop and frisk” have been reexamined for their implicit racial bias. Using tactics like aggressive hold positions on arrestees have been scrutinized for their safety after a number of deaths.
But Trump has spoken out rarely on the issue, and during the first three years of his presidency was more likely to side with law enforcement than with the minority communities that have protested their tactics.
“Got to be properly applied, but stop and frisk works,” he said then.
At other moments, Trump has appeared to endorse tactics by police that might harm people in custody, including failing to protect an arrestee’s head when putting them into a squad car.
Trump declined to comment on certain cases of white-on-black killing, including the shooting death of Stephon Clark in California at the hands of police. He hasn’t commented on the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, whose last words — “I can’t breathe” — came as police placed him in a chokehold.
Asked last year by a reporter if he would apologize for his actions surrounding the case — he took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty that read: “Bring Back The Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” — Trump instead asked why the topic was relevant.
“Why do you bring that question up now? It’s an interesting time to bring it up. You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt,” he said.
The history of either silence or reflexive support for police seemed to be shifting this month when Trump weighed in on two new cases of white-on-black violence in Georgia and Minnesota.
He called the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by a white man while jogging in February, a “heartbreaking thing.” His Justice Department is investigating the killing as a federal hate crime, though Trump has held out the possibility that “something that we didn’t see on tape” could explain the killing.
Trump was briefed on the Floyd case Thursday afternoon by Attorney General William Barr and was “very upset” when he saw the video, according to his press secretary. Many of Trump’s allies in conservative media echoed Trump’s call for justice in the case.
The shift in tone coincided with Trump’s campaign effort to peel off Black voters from Democrats, hoping to convince them Trump is a better candidate than former Vice President Joe Biden, who caused controversy last week when he told a radio host that African-American Trump supporters “ain’t black.”