KENOSHA, Wis. — President Donald Trump stood at the epicenter of the latest eruption over racial injustice Tuesday and came down squarely on the side of law enforcement, blaming “domestic terror” for the violence in Kenosha.
He made no nod to the underlying cause of anger and protests — the shooting of yet another Black man by police.
Trump declared the violence “anti-American.” He did not mention Jacob Blake, who was badly wounded last week in Kenosha.
Soon after arriving in the city, a visit made over the objections of state and local leaders, Trump toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire.
With the scent of smoke still in the air, he spoke to the owners of a century-old store that had been destroyed and continued to link the violence to the Democrats, blaming those in charge of Kenosha and Wisconsin while raising apocalyptic warnings if their party should capture the White House.
“These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” said Trump. And he condemned Democrats for not immediately accepting his offer of federal assistance, claiming “They just don’t want us to come, These governors don’t want to call, and the mayors don’t want to call. They have to ask.”
Trump’s motorcade passed throngs of demonstrators, some holding American flags in support of the president, others jeering while carrying signs that read Black Lives Matter.
A massive police presence, complete with several armored vehicles, secured the area, and barricades were set up along several of the city’s major thoroughfares to keep onlookers at a distance from the passing presidential vehicles.
Offering federal resources to help rebuild the city, Trump toured a high school that had been transformed into a law enforcement command post. He said he planned to call Blake’s mother but opted against it after the family asked that a lawyer listen in.
He later added he felt “terribly” for anyone who suffered a loss, but otherwise only noted that the situation was “complicated” and “under investigation.” The only words acknowledging the suffering of African Americans came from a pastor who attended the law enforcement roundtable.
Pressed by reporters, Trump repeatedly pivoted away from assessing any sort of structural racism in the nation or its police departments, instead blasting what he saw as anti-police rhetoric.
Painting a dark portrait of parts of the nation he leads, the president again linked the radical forces he blamed for the violence to the Democrats and their presidential nominee, Joe Biden, declaring that chaos could soon descend on other cities across America.
Trump condemned unrest in Portland, Oregon, too — as well as an increase in shootings in cities like Chicago and New York — and tried to take credit for stopping the violence in Kenosha with the National Guard.
But it was Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who deployed the Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, and he had pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further.
“I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing,” Evers wrote in a letter to Trump. “I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together.”
Biden has assailed Trump as an instigator of the deadly protests that have sprung up on his watch. On the eve of his visit, Trump defended a teenager, Kyle Rittenhouse, accused of fatally shooting two men at a demonstration in Kenosha last week though he did not mention Rittenhouse Tuesday.
Claiming the mantle of the “law and order” Republican candidate, Trump insists that he, not Biden, is the leader best positioned to keep Americans safe. He said his appearance in Kenosha would “increase enthusiasm” in Wisconsin, perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state in the presidential race.
Blake’s family held a “community celebration” Tuesday at a distance from Trump’s visit.
“We don’t need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city,” Justin Blake, Jacob’s uncle, said in a statement. “We need justice and relief for our vibrant community.”
The NAACP said Tuesday neither candidate should visit the Wisconsin city as tension simmers. Biden’s team has considered a visit to Kenosha and has indicated that a trip to Wisconsin was imminent but has not offered details.
Biden, in his most direct attacks yet, accused Trump on Monday of causing the divisions that have ignited the violence. He delivered an uncharacteristically blistering speech in Pittsburgh and distanced himself from radical forces involved in altercations.
Biden said of Trump: “He doesn’t want to shed light, he wants to generate heat, and he’s stoking violence in our cities. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it.”
Trump and his campaign team have seized upon the unrest in Kenosha, as well as in Portland, where a Trump supporter was shot and killed, leaning hard into a defense of law and order while suggesting that Biden is beholden to extremists.
Trump aides believe that tough-on-crime stance will help him with voters and that the more the national discourse is about anything other than the coronavirus, the better it is for the president.
Protests in Kenosha began the night of Blake’s shooting, Aug. 23, and were concentrated in the blocks around the county courthouse downtown. There was an estimated $2 million in damage to city property, and Kenosha’s mayor has said he is seeking $30 million from the state to help rebuild.
The violence reached its peak the night of Aug. 25, two days after Blake was shot, when police said the 17-year-old armed with an illegal semi-automatic rifle shot and killed two protesters in the streets. Since then marches organized both by backers of police and Blake’s family have all been peaceful with no vandalism or destruction to public property.
In Pittsburgh on Monday, Biden resoundingly condemned violent protesters and called for their prosecution — addressing a key Trump critique.
And the former vice president also tried to refocus the race on what has been its defining theme — Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 180,000 Americans dead — after a multi-day onslaught by the president’s team to make the campaign about the violence rattling American cities.
Biden’s wife, Jill, on Tuesday kicked off a multi-week, 10-city tour of schools disrupted by the pandemic in eight battleground states, drawing a direct line from the empty classrooms to the administration’s failures combating COVID-19.
During her tour of a Wilmington, Delaware school, she spoke with teachers and administrators about doubts that in-person learning will actually resume anytime soon and the challenges — including obtaining new small desks and protective equipment to make sure classrooms can handle social distancing — if they do. She said feelings about heading back to school “have turned from excitement into anxiety, and the playgrounds are still.”