Senate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests
Senate Republicans are urging President Trump to soften his language in response to a wave of protests in major cities across the country after the death in police custody of George Floyd, fearing his rhetoric is fueling tensions instead of quelling them.
Republicans from across the political spectrum on Sunday and Monday warned that Trump’s verbal shots at protesters and local officials alike are “not constructive” or “helpful” and urged him to change his tone.
While many GOP senators have never been fans of Trump’s unrestrained tweeting habit, his latest public salvos are piquing fresh concerns among lawmakers.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) at a press conference on Monday told reporters, “I do think some of his tweets have not been helpful, and it would be helpful if he would change the tone of his message.”
Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only African American Republican in the Senate, told “Fox News Sunday” that Trump’s reference to a 1967 comment from a Miami police chief warning that looters would be shot was “not constructive.”
So far, the calls do not seem to be having much of an impact on Trump, who on Monday evening embraced a tough approach to protesters.
The president delivered a six-minute statement from the White House as U.S. Park Police, National Guard units and other law enforcement used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to aggressively clear the park across from White House.
He announced that he would immediately end the “riots and lawlessness” and that he would dispatch “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers.”
The president said his administration is “fully committed” to ensuring justice for Floyd’s family and called the cries of peaceful protesters “righteous.” But he warned they are at risk of being “drowned out by an angry mob” and declared he would protect the nation as a “president of law and order.”
“A number of state and local governments have failed to take necessary action to safeguard their residents. Innocent people have been savagely beaten,” Trump said before referencing his earlier call with governors.
“Today I have strongly recommended to every governor to employ the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” he said. “Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Monday that he’s on the same page as Toomey and Scott.
“I agree with those assessments. That’s not helpful,” he said.
Thune added, “I think it’s important to respond in a calm way.”
“He needs to strike a tone, I think, that fits the level of frustration the country is experiencing right now, and I hope in the future he’ll do that,” he said.
Asked about Trump’s tweets linking “shooting” and “looting” and his warning that protesters who enter White House grounds could be attacked by vicious dogs, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said, “I wouldn’t have sent them.”
“I think we’ve got to bring people together. This is not about violence. It’s about finding answers and solutions,” he said.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Trump’s reference to Miami police chief Walter Headley’s infamous statement “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” was not appropriate.
“I think that was a very unfortunate comment,” he said, although he noted that Trump appeared to “walk it back” somewhat by later saying he was unaware of the reference to Headley.
Romney also criticized Trump’s call with a group of governors Monday during which the president vented his frustration with their “weak” responses and urged them to “dominate” the streets.
Trump warned they risked looking like “fools” if they failed to show more strength.
“You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks,” Trump told the governors, according to audio of the call first reported by CBS News.
Romney on Monday said that message was counterproductive.
“The call today with the governors, as it was reported, doesn’t calm things down,” he said.
Romney said the protesters “have a strong message,” which is “the kind of disregard that certain black lives have [been] held by law enforcement … has to end.”
“That’s a message that I certainly believe, and I know many others do,” he added.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership team, told reporters Monday that she wants to hear a more unifying message from the president.
“We’re obviously in a divisive situation right now that’s escalating, and I think he needs to make more unifying comments,” she said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a rising conservative star, on Monday told reporters that “it’s really important to draw a distinction between peaceful protesters who are exercising their constitutional rights” and “the looters and the folks who are out there burning churches here in town and smashing storefronts and tearing up their own neighborhoods.”
“We’ve got to put a stop to the violence and the unrest, and we’ve got to honor the cause that these other folks are gathering to witness,” he added.
Asked specifically about Trump’s call on governors to get tough, Hawley said, “As it relates to violence, I think we should be concerned that 75-plus cities have seen violence.”
He said governors should use “reasonable” means to restore order and praised Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) for activating the National Guard.
Hawley said invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy troops to quell unrest should be “a last resort.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to answer a reporter earlier Monday when asked whether Trump had struck the right tone in recent days in speaking about the social unrest.
But the GOP leader sought national reconciliation when he spoke on the Senate floor Monday afternoon in response to what he called “an hour of great pain and unrest in our country.”
“Americans from coast to coast have been grieved and horrified by the killings of three African American citizens — Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in my hometown of Louisville, Ky., and George Floyd in Minneapolis,” McConnell said, also making reference to the death of a young man in Georgia who was killed by two white men attempting a citizen’s arrest and a 26-year-old African American woman from Louisville who was shot by police executing a no-knock search warrant.
McConnell defended the thousands of people who have taken to the streets to voice protest, declaring, “I completely support and fully defend citizens’ constitutional rights to speak their minds and engage in peaceful protest.”
He also condemned violent riots and destruction of property, though in more measured terms than the president.
McConnell said he and fellow Americans have “watched protests dedicated to ending unjust violence mutate into riots that inflict unjust violence themselves” and praised “the vast majority of police officers” as brave public servants who themselves have been “threatened and assaulted on our streets.”
Other GOP senators have also tried to walk the middle road by expressing sympathy for protesters but also condemning assaults against police officers and the destruction of property.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) on Saturday said on Twitter that “what happened to George Floyd is absolutely tragic and we should all demand that those responsible be held accountable.”
But she also tweeted that “burning and looting stores and homes is not the answer.”
Jordain Carney contributed.