Trump, Biden battle to shape opinion on scenes of unrest

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President Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are fighting to shape public perception around the protests convulsing the country, a high-stakes battle that comes as the nation is gripped by largely peaceful protests mixed with disturbing scenes of chaos.

Trump is taking a hard-line approach on law and order, using military personnel to crack down on protesters outside the White House and demanding that Democratic leadership in metro areas regain control from vandals and looters that have ransacked businesses and fought with the police.

The president’s campaign is making the case that Biden is too weak and that the country needs a strong leader in a time of crisis.

Biden is casting Trump as lacking in empathy at a time when racial tensions are boiling over after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died on a street in Minneapolis after a police officer restrained him by kneeling on his neck. That officer now faces murder and manslaughter charges, though his three colleagues who looked on so far do not.

The former vice president is accusing Trump of inflaming racial tensions and says the president lacks the leadership skills to guide the country through this historic moment of civil unrest.

Biden on Tuesday ventured out of his home state of Delaware for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown to denounce Trump from City Hall in Philadelphia, one of the dozens of cities wracked by protests and incidents of violence in recent days.

Trump is under fire from Democrats — and even some Republicans — after police fired tear gas and smoke canisters into a crowd of protesters outside the White House to clear a path for him to take a picture with a Bible in front of a historic church that had been set on fire by vandals.

“When peaceful protesters dispersed in order for a president — a president from the doorstep of the people’s house, the White House, using tear gas and flash grenades in order to stage a photo op — a photo op — at one of the most historic churches in the country … we can be forgiven for believing the president is more interested in power than in principle, more interested in serving the passions of his base than the needs of the people in his care,” Biden said.

Outside of Washington, there is deep concern about the violent protests that have ravaged deep-blue metro areas from New York City to Los Angeles, as scores of local reports emerge about police being attacked and businesses being looted by rioters.

Biden’s allies are warning that he must clearly make the case for law and order.

“If the narrative becomes looting and not police violence, that’s not a good narrative for Democrats because these cities are run by Democrats,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity. “There isn’t one mayor who has done a f—ing good job of controlling the chaos. Does anyone understand how bad this all looks?”

Law enforcement officials in Missouri, Nevada and New York were injured on Monday night, with one officer in Las Vegas suffering a gunshot wound to the head.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) blasted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), saying the mayor and the city’s police department “did not do their job” as Manhattan was overrun by looting and vandalism on Monday night.

In his speech on Tuesday, Biden demanded Congress pass new laws to address police violence against racial minorities and accused Trump of mobilizing the military to punish protesters in an effort to gin-up excitement among his base.

Biden deviated only briefly from those themes to condemn the criminal aspects of the protest.

Trump’s allies view this as a glaring blind spot for Democrats. They believe the message of Trump’s Rose Garden speech on Monday, in which he described rioters as committing “acts of domestic terror,” would resonate with suburban voters living in fear of the civil unrest.

“The target was the majority of apolitical Americans — people who aren’t on Twitter or watching CNN or Fox News,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and adviser to Donald Trump Jr. “They’re working, raising children and they don’t have time to be consumed by the media around the clock, they just want to go to work and they don’t want to see their cities destroyed. Those are the voters that ultimately will matter.”

But Biden sees an opening to attack Trump as a bully with authoritarian instincts who is abusing his role as commander in chief at a time of combustible protests and racial tension in the nation.

“We will not allow any president to quiet our voice,” Biden said. “We won’t let those who see this as an opportunity to sow chaos throw up a smokescreen to distract us from the very real and legitimate grievances at the heart of these protests.”

Some Republicans have expressed unease with Trump’s tactics, particularly those aimed at the protesters around the White House on Monday night.

“To me at a time like this, the president ought to be trying to calm the nation, pledge to right historic wrongs and be a steady influence. I don’t think he was last night,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is among the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection.

“It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once,” she said.

Top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), blasted what they described as the president’s callousness toward peaceful protesters and those grieving Floyd’s death.

They view Trump’s rage-tweeting at his political enemies in a time of unrest as evidence of a lack of leadership and empathy at the top.

Clutching a Bible, Pelosi pleaded with Trump to reach out to his adversaries and make an effort to heal the nation’s racial and political divisions.

“We would hope that the president of the United States would follow the lead of so many other presidents before him to be a healer in chief, and not a fanner of the flame,” she said.

Democrats are confident voters will be able to parse the difference between protesters with legitimate grievances about Floyd’s death who have demonstrated peacefully and those who have sought to capitalize on the chaos to commit crimes.

They believe Biden showed Tuesday that he will be a steadying presence in the White House that voters will be eager to turn to after four combustible years under Trump.

“God help this country if they can’t see the stark difference between the two candidates,” said Adam Patrolwomen, a Democratic strategist who worked on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Bill de Blasio Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump George Floyd protests Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi presidential election Susan Collins

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