WASHINGTON — With the constant sound of helicopter blades overhead and a steady succession of bangs from nearby, President Donald Trump said Monday he was committed to upholding laws and mobilizing military resources to end nationwide looting.
“My first and highest duty as president is to defend our great country and the American people,” Trump said. “I swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation, and that is exactly what I will do.”
Trump said justice would be served for George Floyd, the unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck as he was being arrested.
And he said he was an “ally of all peaceful protesters.”
But in striking terms, Trump said he would use his entire presidential prerogative to ensure violent protests end, declaring he would deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers” to bring order.
Before his address, crowds of protesters were beginning to gather outside the White House gates. A large convoy of military vehicles was seen driving through the White House complex and onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
As Trump remained out of public view on Sunday and Monday, and as his aides deliberated over how and whether he should address protests, many of his allies were growing increasingly frustrated with what has felt like silence from the White House.
Many of the President’s traditional defenders — from campaign donors to Republicans on Capitol Hill to some in the conservative media — have privately grumbled that Trump has allowed several days to pass without addressing the nation or making any formal appeals for unity.
What Trump has done publicly — tweet extensively about his grievances with Democratic state and local leaders and mention the protests in the middle of a previously scheduled event — has at best gone unnoticed and at worst fanned the flames of outrage into a second week.
Some outside allies have reached out to the White House in recent days to push for an appearance from the President in which he would confront a crisis he has largely watched unfold from behind closed doors or in his underground bunker.
One major campaign donor worried that the damage inflicted by Trump’s absence during a historic weekend of violence and pain could alone imperil his reelection.
One person familiar with the matter said there is a sense among allies that an attempt to address the situation in a speech over the weekend fell completely flat.
The person said the unrelated backdrop of the Kennedy Space Center — and the fact that the speech came on a Saturday afternoon — ensured few people even registered the passages that were added at the last minute.
“We support the right of peaceful protests and we hear their pleas, but what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with the memory of George Floyd,” Trump said in his remarks after watching the first manned US space launch in nearly a decade. “The mobs are devastating the life’s work of good people and destroying their dreams.”
Trump’s measured tone stood in stark contrast to his barrage of tweets over the weekend, which included messages blaming Antifa for the unrest and vowing severe retaliation.
A growing number of congressional Republicans, even Trump’s allies, have privately said the “caps lock” tweets are not helping the situation.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said on “Fox News Sunday” that he had spoken to Trump over the weekend about his inflammatory tweets, which he described as “not constructive.”
Over the weekend, some aides sought to convince Trump not to use violent rhetoric after he wrote on Twitter that “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” warning language like that could inflame an already combustible situation and would not appear presidential.
Inside the White House, advisers remain divided over whether a speech delivered from the Oval Office or elsewhere at the White House would help lower the national temperature.
Trump has expressed interest in delivering a speech to the nation, a person close to the White House said, but some administration officials believe that would be a mistake.
A senior White House aide said governors and mayors should be the ones responding to the destruction in their respective cities and states — a view at least partially shared by Trump, who has spent days going after local leaders for not calling the National Guard fast enough or cracking down on violence aggressively enough.
In a heated phone call with governors on Monday morning, Trump placed responsibility on the governors for resolving the national crisis and said some of them appeared “weak” in their responses so far.
Other White House officials argued over the weekend against something as formal as an Oval Office address, a person familiar said, out of concern that such a speech could “inflame the situation, not make it better.”
As aides debate how and whether to confront the situation, Trump’s back-and-forth between violent rhetoric and a more measured tone has weighed in the deliberations, one official said. Some advisers wonder whether a presidential address calling for calm would be quickly erased by Trump’s own penchant for escalation and instigation.
It did not seem such a speech was imminent on Monday morning.
“A national Oval Office address is not going to stop Antifa,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in an appearance Monday on Fox News, noting that Trump had addressed the killing of George Floyd several times already.
“The President has addressed this repeatedly,” she said. Later, McEnany said Trump’s “focus right now is acting and keeping our streets safe.”