Political News

Trump's base instincts on display amid reckoning over Floyd's death

Posted June 8, 2020 10:30 p.m. EDT
Updated June 9, 2020 10:04 a.m. EDT

— With a single tweet Tuesday, President Donald Trump showed why his attempts to leverage liberal calls to "defund the police" to harm Democrat Joe Biden will likely fail but could further polarize America's national reckoning over race.

Trump effectively glorified police violence, questioning whether a video of a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo, New York, who was seriously injured after being shoved by police officers, was a "set up." Trump claimed that the man, Martin Gugino, "fell harder than he was pushed."

Tuesday's stunning intervention by Trump showed why White House plans being considered for a national presidential address on unity and race are unlikely to ease the President's current political plight five months before Election Day. More importantly, it reflected the impossible task that Trump may have in bringing the country together and the way in which his campaign's plans to focus on a coherent, hardline strategy against Biden will likely be constantly undermined by the President's impulses.

The tweet came as the national outpouring George Floyd's death is being dragged into the epicenter of the political battle between Trump and Biden, in a way that could further inflame deep divides and complicate the bid to cleanse the nation's police forces of racial prejudice.

Trump, seeking to dig himself out of a political hole only five months from Election Day, has seized on calls by some liberal activists to "defund the police" to accuse his Democratic rival of siding with extremists in his party who are out of step with mainstream Americans.

But the former vice president on Monday calmly told Trump he doesn't support such moves, arguing instead that federal funds for law enforcement should mandate honor and decency in the ranks, after traveling to Houston to offer solace to Floyd's family ahead of his funeral on Tuesday.

The clashes between Biden and Trump reflect how a recently slumbering presidential campaign has been given new intensity by the remarkable outpouring of empathy for African Americans in diverse national protests. The most direct exchanges between the two White House foes are occurring as congressional Democrats unveiled a new plan to overhaul policy and as Trump searches for a culture war issue to help him cut his now significant polling deficit with Biden.

"The Radical Left Democrats want to Defund and Abandon our Police. Sorry, I want LAW & ORDER!" Trump tweeted Monday, on a day when his campaign said he would resume rallies in two weeks, even though such gatherings would likely infringe social distancing precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump's claims take a complicated issue and twist its most explosive element for maximum damage -- a campaign technique that is not new but one at which the President excels.

The push for a policing overhauling is hugely complex, involves entrenched political forces and will jar some of the nation's most sensitive racial and societal fault lines. Reformers argue that money should be redirected from training and arming more and more cops to programs that invest in public housing, health care, community projects and social ailments that make urban areas more livable and less susceptible to crime that can contribute to tensions between police and residents.

But this debate is going to unfold in the white heat of a presidential campaign, a backdrop that destroys nuance and can make consensus impossible. The coming weeks will also test whether the force of public pressure for changes, expressed in huge, diverse crowds, can triumph over impediments of a polarized political system topped by a President demagoging the issue in search of electoral salvation.

On such a sensitive issue, Biden will be constantly required to show the political dexterity and precision under fire he has sometimes lacked in a long political career as he discusses an intricate and risky issue.

"No, I don't support defunding the police," Biden told CBS. "I support conditioning federal aid to police, based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate that they can protect the community and everybody in the community."

Trump's attacks prompted Democratic House Majority Whip James Clyburn to warn his caucus members that talking about "defunding" the police could "hijack" efforts at reform. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who Trump seeks to highlight as representative of Biden's party, has called for slashing the budget of the New York Police Department. She told caucus members on the same call to try to understand the complex debate and not to mock it, CNN's Manu Raju reported.

Trump and his conservative media machine hopes to trap the former vice president between liberal base voters already suspicious of his record on crime and moderates who are open to reform but who might be alarmed by warnings police could disappear from the streets.

The five months until Election Day will also highlight the Democratic Party's capacity to operate as a unified force, amid indications its more radical elements could continually lay political minefields for leaders such as Biden.

And ultimately, hopes for police reform legislation -- in this administration or the next -- will depend on whether voters are able to distinguish genuine and difficult debate from the deforming distractions of a campaign or whether dispiriting self-serving political combat dims public momentum for change.

But Trump is also playing on risky ground. Misleading campaigns that Democrats want to eradicate the police force entirely might absolve him of discussing the serious issues of reform. But recent polls, including by CNN, show unprecedented concern over police brutality, and voters could punish the President if he doesn't take the movement unleashed in recent weeks more seriously.

Democrats' new reform bill doesn't 'defund the police'

Floyd's death late last month, with a policeman's knee on his neck, triggered the most significant outburst of empathy for the institutionalized racism faced by African Americans in recent memory. That's one reason why black community leaders have some optimism that this time things could be different.

Democrats in Washington in Monday unveiled a comprehensive police overhaul package that includes a ban on chokeholds and the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry to stop officers with a record of misconduct from moving jurisdictions to avoid accountability. So far, however, there are no Republican co-sponsors. And while criticizing Democrats, the White House on Monday offered no counter-proposal of its own.

Some Republicans argue the federal government has no business dictating rules for local police departments. Others appear not unwilling to lead on an issue that might alienate constituents.

Still, at a visitation for Floyd on Monday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott voiced the kind of attitude in summing up the meaning of this moment that could make reform possible.

"George Floyd is going to change to arc of the future of the United States," Abbott said. "George Floyd has not died in vain. His life will be a living legacy about the way America and Texas respond to this tragedy."

Trump has spent much of the two weeks since Floyd's passing by ripping open racial wounds -- for example, with his notorious tweet "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Now, the President is trying to deflect demands for police reform with a hardline "law and order" message that blasts Democrats as out of step with mainstream opinion on the scope of police reforms.

"There won't be dismantling of our police, and there's not going to be any disbanding of our police. Our police have been letting us live in peace," Trump said at a meeting of law enforcement leaders at the White House on Monday. He put "horrible" things like Floyd's death down to "bad actors" and said 99.9% of police officers posed no problem, an argument that conflicts with evidence of widespread discrimination against African Americans.

The President's campaign made the argument even more explicit, accusing Biden of not speaking up for police.

"The Defund the Police train has already left the station and Joe Biden is merely a weak passenger," Trump 2020 communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.

A complex argument

One of Ocasio-Cortez's colleagues, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, spelled out what she understands from the "defund the police" terminology in a Twitter thread on Monday.

"Instead of spending money on tear gas, and military grade equipment, that money should go to education, health services, including mental health, and other programs that allow our communities to thrive. Enough with the trying to justify criminalization & violence," Tlaib wrote.

Advocates of shifting police funding to community programs argue that the law enforcement officers shouldn't be in the business of dealing with issues like homelessness, drug addiction and other social problems that can lead to rising crime. Some advocates point to places like Northern Ireland where institutionalized distrust of police led to the dismantling and reconstruction of entire law enforcement organizations.

But Trump and his allies want to blur such nuanced distinctions, and twist "Defund the Police" from a rallying cry for protestors into a pejorative phrase to define all Democrats.

Who replaces the police?

The potential for Republicans to raise alarm among moderate voters was laid bare in an appearance on CNN's "New Day" on Monday by Lisa Bender, president of Minneapolis City Council, who heads a veto-proof majority committed to defunding and dismantling the police department.

Bender was asked by CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota whether she understood that the notion of dismantling the police made people nervous, especially when they considered who they would call if their house was being broken into at night.

"Yes, I mean, (I) hear that loud and clear from a lot of my neighbors," Bender said.

"And I know that that comes from a place of privilege. Because for those of us for whom the system is working, I think we need to step back and imagine what it would feel like to already live in that reality where calling the police may mean more harm is done."

There were mounting signs that Democrats are not yet ready for Trump's assault Monday as key party figures struggled to give clear answers on police funding. Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser for instance avoided saying whether a "Defund the Police" message painted by activists on a road close to the city's own "Black Lives Matter" statement would be removed.

"We recognize it as expression, and especially right now, acknowledging and affirming that expression is important to this discussion that we have to have as a community," Bowser said.

Bowser is typical of local and municipal officials who could be caught between stirring demands for police reform but who also have responsibility for keeping order in a sometimes violent city.

One of Biden's possible running mates, California Sen. Kamala Harris got into an exchange with Meghan McCain on "The View" on ABC -- after arguing that the way to make cities safer was not to put more cops on the beat but to finance public housing, education, health care and community projects.

"How are you defining funding the police?" Harris asked McCain.

The fact that Democrats have yet to fully answer that question for the public is what it makes this a potentially useful opening for Trump.

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