May 31, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump privately scolded, warned by allies

Fingers pointing at Trump

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Over the past couple of days, numerous advisers both inside and outside the White House have urged the president to tone down his violent rhetoric, which many worry could escalate racial tensions and hurt him politically.

Behind the scenes: The biggest source of internal concern was Trump's escalatory tweet, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Some advisers said it could damage him severely with independent voters and suburban women.

After not going to sleep until the early hours of Friday morning, President Trump woke to a string of conversations with advisers who told him he had a problem.

  • Some of Trump's most trusted aides, including Hope Hicks, expressed concern about a tweet he sent shortly before 1am Friday, in which he used a violent phrase with a racist history rooting back to police brutality against African Americans in the 1960s: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts."
  • A number of people outside the White House weighed in over the course of the day. On Friday morning, Facebook raised concerns to the White House about Trump's incendiary message and urged them to make a change even if it did not violate Facebook's policies, according to a source familiar with the outreach.
  • Later that day, Trump phoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. During the call, Zuckerberg "expressed concerns about the tone and the rhetoric," according to a source familiar with the call.
  • Zuckerberg "didn't make any specific requests," the source said. A second source familiar with the call said the Facebook boss told Trump that he personally disagreed with the president's incendiary rhetoric and that by using language like this, Trump was putting Facebook in a difficult position.

Between the lines: Even aides who usually laugh or shrug their shoulders at Trump's more outrageous tweets considered this one a problem. Some said they saw direct political implications.

  • People close to the president, including several senior White House officials, have privately expressed concerns that his incendiary response to the Minneapolis riots will hurt him with two groups that could remove him from office in November: independents and suburban women. These are groups who already tell pollsters they don't like Trump's tone, even if they like some of his policies.
  • One adviser said they saw it as the president's worst moment since Charlottesville.
  • A senior White House official, who typically likes it when Trump takes tough law-and-order positions, described the tweet as "stupid." The official described Trump's ultimate cleanup, in which the president claimed he wasn't suggesting that law enforcement should shoot rioters, as "pretty creative."

Why it matters: After so long working for him, Trump's inner circle usually shrugs at his tweets. So it's a rare moment when they sound the alarm.

Yes, but: After walking back his looting/shooting tweet, Trump tripled down on this incendiary tone in a series of Saturday morning tweets, suggesting that protesters outside the White House would have been "greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons" if they breached the fence.

  • Trump added: "Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???" — a tweet that seemed to encourage a clash between his supporters and the predominantly African American protesters outside the White House. Trump later denied this was his intention.

What to watch: Over the past 24 hours, there’s been a vigorous debate in Trump’s inner circle about whether the president should do an Oval Office address to the nation. 

The reset — and what’s next

Trump's aides saw the president's trip to Florida to watch the SpaceX-NASA launch as an opportunity to reset his message and to distinguish between righteous protests of the murder of George Floyd and senseless riots.

  • Trump said, "The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a tragedy. It should never have happened. It has filled Americans across the country with horror, anger, and grief."
  • "I understand the pain that people are feeling. We support the right of peaceful protestors, and we hear their pleas. Unfortunately, what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peaceful protests. The memory of George Floyd is being dishonored by rioters, looters, and anarchists."

His advisers were relieved — at least temporarily.

  • "I think most everyone is satisfied with where things landed [in Saturday's space launch speech] and with the tone of his remarks," a White House official told me. "The president's mind always goes to the place of law and order. He's a tough guy, and his instincts are 'I want to be with the police, I want safety and security, I don't want lawlessness.'"
  • "But there have been key voices in his ear who have been consistently saying 'Be that guy because we need that. What's happening in Atlanta and Minneapolis is not acceptable,' but also be empathetic and continue to show extreme sympathy for what happened with Floyd. And I think he navigated that very well" on Saturday.

What's next: "You're definitely going to see the law and order, tough guy rhetoric amp up in the coming days," the official continued. "But you're also going to see that laced with sympathy for legitimate protesters and for those actually mourning Floyd's death."

  • Yes, but: Nobody who knows Trump would pretend the tone of these scripted remarks is sustainable on a daily or even hourly basis. Trump always reverts to his instincts — which are to bluntly call for law enforcement to take "tough" actions against protesters.
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