On Monday evening, Donald Trump delivered a short address in the Rose Garden while police and military personnel fired tear gas to disperse protesters gathered nearby.
It was a surreal scene even by the standards of an administration that specializes in creating alternate realities.
Law enforcement (some of whom rode towards the crowd on horseback) appeared to be coordinating with the White House in a bid to create a chaotic scene, knowing the media would employ split-screens as the president spoke.
If the plan was to stir up commotion in order to help Trump’s “law and order” message resonate, it’s not clear how effective it was. Demonstrators generally ran away as the tear gas wafted down the streets of the nation’s capital. Police half-heartedly chased after them. Camera crews backpedalled, still filming.
Trump began by declaring that the administration is committed to securing justice for George Floyd’s family, and the president claimed to be an “ally of peaceful protesters”.
He quickly pivoted, though, addressing what he decried as “acts of domestic terror” perpetrated by “professional anarchists”.
In what may be seen in hindsight as one the defining moments of his presidency, Trump reiterated his message to governors from a conference call held earlier in the day, imploring state and local officials to “dominate the streets”, before declaring that if governors do not act forcefully enough, he will send in the military.
Then, over the sound of explosions, Trump adopted an audibly gleeful cadence in the course of telling the nation that he is currently in the process of deploying “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers” to stop what he described as “rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and wanton destruction of property”.
“We are putting everybody on warning”, Trump cautioned. “Our seven o’clock curfew will be strictly enforced”.
It would not be a stretch to say that Trump has declared martial law in the US, something those who still had a sense of humor after his inauguration once joked about before satire died a slow, agonizing death with each passing tweet.
Fast forward three years, and Trump has, in fact, called in the military to quell violent demonstrations against racial injustice which have now spread to nearly every major metropolitan area in America.
This comes as the country is coping with an unemployment rate that’s expected to hit 20% when the official number for May is released on Friday.
The US economy has all but collapsed. It’s possible the protests will make the second quarter even worse economically than it was already destined to be. It isn’t totally out of the question that America could witness a 50% contraction (on a QoQ, annualized basis).
All of this, and the country still has no vaccine and no truly effective therapeutic against COVID-19. Some worry the protests may act as super-spreader events.
After officially informing Americans that “thousands” of “heavily armed” soldiers are set to police the streets, Trump proceeded to perpetuate the unfounded notion that the protests are, for the most part, the work of unnamed “terror organizers”, who he threatened with “lengthy sentences in jail”.
He identified Antifa, but also mentioned “other leading instigators”, without saying who he was referring to.
After declaring that America has “one beautiful law”, the president excused himself, telling reporters he was going to “pay respects to a very, very special place”.
The “special place” turned out to be nearby St. John’s Church, which was damaged during the protests. It was, for lack of a better way to describe it, a cheap photo-op for Trump. Below is one such photo.
The necessity of preemptively clearing the area for the president to visit the church in part explains why police abruptly decided to push back protesters as the president began to speak across the street.
In addition to tear gas, reports and video from the scene suggest some demonstrators were fired on with rubber bullets.
A reporter could be heard asking Trump if the Bible on display was his. “Is that your Bible?”
“It’s a Bible”, Trump said.