WASHINGTON (CN) — As protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd continued to rage outside the White House Monday night, President Donald Trump said from the Rose Garden he will deploy the U.S. military to any state where officials cannot quell unrest.
“I am mobilizing all federal and local resources, civilian and military to protect the rights of law-abiding citizens,” Trump said to reporters gathered for the briefing that lasted less than 20 minutes and ended without questions.
Should a city or state “refuse” to take action that would defend their residents, Trump said, he would “quickly solve the problem for them.” It is unclear exactly how the White House would define that refusal.
A representative for the White House did not immediately return request for comment.
The president, who was impeached last year for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, also referred to himself Monday night as the people’s “president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
Less than a week ago, the president vowed protesters who breached the White House gates would be greeted by “the most vicious dogs” and “most ominous weapons.”
Several media reports citing anonymous officials familiar with the president’s thinking have suggested Trump could invoke the two-century-old Insurrection Act to trigger U.S. military involvement in states.
The last time the federal government invoked the power was in 1992 after Los Angeles exploded with riots following police brutality exacted on Rodney King.
After his remarks, the president, who was stowed at times in a bunker at the White House as tear gas, pepper spray and smoke bombs were hurled outside over the weekend, took a highly visible walk from the Rose Garden to nearby St. John’s Church.
A fire was set in the basement of the church on Sunday night but was quickly put out, doing only minor damage to the historic “presidents’ church.” Secret Service and other security flanked Trump as he made the walk, while protesters could be heard clamoring in the distance.
He held up a Bible as he arrived at the church and posed for pictures, telling reporters who asked for his thoughts: “This is a great country” and that the U.S. will come back “greater than before.” He ignored questions about whether he was prepared to use lethal military force against U.S. citizens.
Since the Memorial Day killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protests have raged across the United States. Ahead of Monday’s press conference, President Donald Trump advised governors to step up enforcement and quash the movement.
“You have to dominate,” the president reportedly said during a White House teleconference with governors this morning. “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.”
The audio of the call was first obtained by CBS News, and CNN released a snippet of the audio transcript ahead of a Monday afternoon White House press conference.
Trump used the same language during the press briefing in the Rose Garden, saying that the National Guard would “dominate the street” if necessary.
On the call, Trump is heard lamenting protest activity in Minnesota and the response there by police, saying that the state became a global “laughingstock” for being unable to quell unrest there.
“Two days, three days later, I spoke to the governor. The governors, I think by the call, that he is an excellent guy,” Trump said. “All the sudden, I said, ‘You got to use the National Guard in big numbers. Get in there first.’ They did. I’ll tell you, I don’t know what it was. It was governor, it was the third night, fourth night. Those guys walked through that stuff like it was butter.”
With the National Guard in place, he added, Minnesota “dominated.”
A moment later, the president turned his attention to New York City and Los Angeles, where he said local leadership will have to use a firmer hand to end unrest.
“But New York is going to have to toughen up, and we’ll send you National Guard if you want,” he said. “You have the largest police force in the country: 40,000 people, I understand. But what goes on in New York is terrible. It’s terrible.”
According to the New York Police Department, there are 36,000 uniformed officers and 19,000 civilian employees.
“Of all the places, what went on last night in Los Angeles with the stores and storefronts is terrible,” he said. “No domination. You have to dominate. Yeah. Go ahead.”
At the urging of overwhelmed local officials, California Governor Gavin Newsom on Saturday night deployed National Guard troops to Los Angeles streets for the first time since the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Asked repeatedly by reporters Monday about the governors’ call, Newsom shunned a chance to push back and said he wasn’t interested in a back-and-forth with the president.
Over the last 18 months the two have engaged in a war of words on Twitter on a variety of topics, from the border wall, immigration and environmental policy, but this time around Newsom said he would take the high road and focus on California’s 40 million residents.
“I care more about them than some of the noise I heard on a morning phone call,” Newsom said during a press briefing at a church in Sacramento.
During a press conference on Monday afternoon, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the president’s calls for “domination” were not suggestions aimed at protesters specifically.
“The president says he wants to dominate the streets with National Guard and with a police presence,” she said before adding that anytime Trump used the word dominate, it was a reference to “ensuring there is peace in our streets.”
This weekend, the nation’s capital saw steadily escalating tensions with police as over a thousand people took to the streets.
At Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House, protesters attempted late Saturday night to break through barricades erected by police in front of the president’s home. Police used pepper spray and tear gas to push the crowds back.
That night, against an eerie backdrop of fireworks set off in the street, anti-police graffiti such “fuck the pigs” and “I like my bacon crispy” cropped up throughout the city on buildings, restaurants and other landmarks.
Sunday, as another day of protests fueled uncertainty, the White House turned off its exterior lights for security purposes.
“Violence, looting, anarchy are not to be tolerated,” McEnany said during Monday’s conference. “These criminal acts are not protests. These are not statements. These are crimes that hurt innocent American citizens. The First Amendment guarantees the right of the public to peaceably assemble. What we saw last night was not that.”
Several stores in downtown Washington were also looted over the weekend.
Police records count 17 arrests in Washington, D.C., on Saturday and 11 injured officers, though none fatally.
The scene was one seen in at least 140 U.S. cities over the last week, with the National Guard being called in to help police in at least 21 states. Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday afternoon set a 7 p.m. curfew on the city — another trend in cities that have faced back-to-back nights of unrest.
On his call with governors Monday, Trump reportedly said the nation’s capital was “under very good control” and would be “under much more control” in the coming days.
“You’ve got to arrest people, you have to track people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years, and you’ll never see this stuff again,” he said.
Trump called last week for an investigation of Floyd’s death. Though he also mentioned Floyd’s death while speaking Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center, the president has yet to issue a national address calling for calm. Press secretary McEnany said Monday it is unlikely a formal address will be given, even as cities continue to brace for another potential night of unrest.
“The president has delivered multiple statements on this,” she said. “He was out talking about what a tragedy the death of George Floyd was, how he encourages peace and lawfulness. Continual statements as he has made day and day again — they don’t stop anarchy. They stop action, and that’s what the president is working on right now.”
McEnany said the focus for the White House is to designate the far-left ideological movement known as antifa, short for anti-fascists, as a terrorist organization.
Since antifa has neither a singular leader nor any organized roles, however, such work could be tricky. The U.S. also does not have any clear domestic terrorism statute in place. Under federal law, terrorism is weighed only under an international lens. When it comes to homegrown activities that are deemed terrorizing, law enforcement generally rely on other statues to fit the bill.
In this vein, and seeking answers about whether the administration has a national plan for police reform, a reporter noted Monday to McEnany that George Floyd was in police custody, not antifa custody, when he died.
McEnany hedged in her response, saying the Department of Justice is investigating Floyd’s death as well as the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was chased and gunned down by two white men in Georgia.
“The president was extremely upset when he saw that video and he continues to be,” McEnany said of Floyd. “The DOJ continues to pursue those charges.”
On Monday, attorneys for the Floyd family said autopsy results revealed the 46-year-old died of asphyxiation due to neck and back compression.
Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, appearing in a video to ignore Floyd’s cries of distress including a repetitive cry of “I can’t breathe.”
Chauvin, who had 18 previous complaints filed against him with the Minneapolis Police Department’s Internal Affairs office, was fired. He has since been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.