As the country descended further into civil strife and racial unrest, President Donald Trump was offered a choice between advisers urging him to break out of the politics of grievance and his own overpowering desire to dig in.
In the end—as is always the case—Trump’s gut won out.
The president, on Monday night, had police use tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters for the purposes of walking to the nearby historic St. John’s Church so he could be photographed holding a Bible outside. It was just 0.1 miles, according to Google Maps, but rarely have such profound constitutional ripple effects accompanied such a short stroll through the park.
But these are the stakes that Trump has actively courted. Before his photo op, before D.C. police took to horse and bike and tear gas launchers to push the gathering crowd back, before Trump gave a Rose Garden speech in which he declared himself the “president of law and order” and threatened to send the military into metropolitan areas, several aides and longtime confidants were practically begging him to address the nation in an entirely different manner.
They wanted a plea for resolve and calm following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police—a killing that had sparked emotional demonstrations, chaos, and looting in nearly every city across the country. Among those chirping in Trump’s ear about the benefits such a televised address could bring was Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to two sources familiar with the situation. Other Trump advisers were aiming lower: a series of public events or “listening sessions” that the president could potentially helm, they reasoned, would do.
Through it all, Trump was resistant. Barricaded in the halls of the White House, he fumed at the job being done by others, tweeted his rage, and then, finally, dabbled in a bit of strongman showmanship that would have come off as even more dictatorial if it hadn’t been so poorly rehearsed. Trump never set foot in the church, which had been damaged by protesters the night before. Nor did he read from the Bible he held. Instead, he showcased it like an item on the Home Shopping Network, raised it to the right of his head, uttered a few more words to the press, and headed right back to the confines of the White House.
For his supporters, it was more than enough. For others, it was further proof of the incapacities and insecurities he’s brought to the world’s most powerful post. Having won office on a platform of resentment and anger, Trump has found it impossible to embrace anything else.
“Not to dig too deep into the dark recesses of Donald Trump’s mind, but in his worldview nothing is legit, everyone has an angle, and everything you do that’s not in your own self-interest is stupid and wrong,” said David Axelrod, who as Barack Obama’s former top adviser navigated the tricky intersection of race and politics on more than one occasion. “A sober, more empathic president may be needed right now. But that’s just not within his range. He sees these riots as an opportunity.”
Prior to Monday night’s episode, there had been a sense of paralysis inside the White House as the president, along with his most senior advisers, searched for ways to mend the ripping of America’s social fabric following Floyd’s death.
Trump had reached out to allies, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), to talk about issues of race. But he had not reached out to leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to a top source there. He was on edge about the footage of looting and vandalism in cities across the country. But there were some in the West Wing who were convinced that a nationally televised address—as pushed by Meadows—would be a terribly ill-advised approach, certainly given how Trump’s Oval Office address on the coronavirus crisis in March turned into an unmitigated disaster. And on the campaign, top officials were holding out hope that the president would exhibit some form of “strong” leadership. But privately they grumbled about the lack of material the West Wing was giving them to work with.
“This should and could still be a huge political winner for him, but he needs to show some leadership outside of unhelpful tweets for the millions of people scared to leave their houses right now because of the riots,” said a source close to the Trump campaign.
Making matters worse was what happened when Trump did make attempts at public reconciliation. Without fail, they proved clumsy. As former Vice President Joe Biden talked with protesters, sat in at a church meeting, and tele-convened with mayors, Trump held a call of his own with governors to outline steps to bring order to their cities. But the discussion was marked by him berating them as weak and encouraging them to mass arrest protesters. On Saturday, George Floyd’s brother Philonise told MSNBC that he’d spoken to Trump but that the conversation was so rushed that the president “didn’t give me the opportunity to even speak.”
“I think he’s overwhelmed,” said Rory Cooper, a longtime GOP operative who has been critical of Trump. “His natural habitat is as a victim and a blamer, as in this is happening to us and it’s their fault. The role of the president to help solve problems, even those that are thrust upon you, is not in his DNA, and it never will be.”
For those who know Trump, his inability to broaden or modify his approach has been hardly surprising. Though Trump came of age in a New York City torn apart by racial animus, Tony Schwartz, Trump’s former ghostwriter, said that it was an insatiable desire to be admired and praised—not his surroundings—that molded Trump. Grievance, said Schwartz, is not some political calculation; it’s his genetic makeup.
“I believe his personality and perspective were well established long before [that] era,” said Schwartz, “and that psychology explains why he reacted the way he did, not the other way around. I don’t believe those events had any impact on his already established views, but as we’ve seen again this week, his lack of conscience and empathy can show up in the world as a very raw kind of racism.”
Stewing over the lingering pandemic, failing economy, and racial unrest that had engulfed the country, Trump found himself literally and figuratively isolated. Protests in downtown D.C. had forced him into a protective bunker out of fear for his safety. And by Monday morning, the White House itself had come to resemble a fortress—one holding back the tides of chaos, energy, and destruction surrounding it.
Four rows of fencing, extending out approximately two city blocks, blocked the entrance to the gates. The adjacent Lafayette Park was covered with half-filled bottles of water that had been used as projectiles the night before. The windows on the surrounding restaurants and hotels were smashed in and graffiti covered most of their walls—the word “DICKEATERS” notably painted on the facade of the posh Hay Adams Hotel across the park.
At an office building nearby, one worker had been there since 6 a.m.—not to board up windows but to take down their glass doors, submitting to the likelihood that they’ll be the next casualties. Next to St. John’s Church stood the union federation AFL-CIO, whose building was covered in graffiti. A city worker in a white painter’s suit had been there since 5 a.m. to wash off the walls. Standing over a bucket of cleaner, he looked over at his colleague smoking a cigarette in the early morning sun. They’d wiped graffiti off the same building when it had been defaced the day before. Within hours, D.C. police would be pushing protesters past that spot with a mix of tear gas and brute force.
“I’ll probably be doing this for the next two weeks,” said the worker, named Tae, as he propped his wet mop over the words “Fuck” that had been painted on one of the walls. “Have you been down here? It’s alive.”