WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s bellicose response to the racial unrest engulfing the United States and his controversial visit to a church after the forced clearing of peaceful protesters have sparked divisions and frustration among some White House staff.
Trump’s focus on “law and order” to curb sometimes violent protests came after discussion among advisers about the best way to respond to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes in Minneapolis last week, senior administration officials said.
But the Republican president’s surprise trip to the historic Saint John’s Church near the White House on Monday, during which he held up a Bible for photographers and posed with staff members who all were white, drew condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, and rattled some on his own team, one senior administration official told Reuters.
Law enforcement officials used heavy handed tactics to clear the area of peaceful protesters before the visit, even though a Washington curfew was not yet in force.
Trump, who is running for re-election in November, has courted religious voters, especially evangelical Christians, as a key part of his political base.
He does not attend church regularly himself and did not enter the building on Monday, a part of which had been burned during demonstrations, or offer a prayer during his stop.
“There are a lot of very evangelical people walking around this White House who I know were very uncomfortable with that (visit),” the senior administration official said.
The official described the response to the demonstrations as lacking leadership and avoiding key truths, including the role of white supremacists in some of the unrest.
A call that Trump held with state governors, in which he described them as weak and told them to get tougher with protesters, was “insane” and went “off the rails,” the official said.
African-American staff members, who do not make a up a large portion of Trump’s circle, were recruited to be present for that call on Monday in the Situation Room, the official said, and Vice President Mike Pence has considered traveling to Minnesota despite concerns that his presence could spark further riots and heighten security risks.
Trump condemned Floyd’s killing and has promised justice but he faced criticism from Democrats and some fellow Republicans for his provocative rhetoric about the protests.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden blasted Trump’s response and sought to offer a contrast by vowing to try to heal the country’s racial divide.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump has hit “the perfect tone” in expressing deep sadness for the Floyd family and showing an unwavering commitment to make sure justice is done in the case, while also defending law and order.
“He has expressed support for the First Amendment and the right for people to peacefully protest while at the same time making it very clear that criminal behavior, lawlessness and evil cannot be tolerated,” Gidley said.
Trump’s broad response, including a threat to use the military to quell the riots, is consistent with a presidency that has revved up political supporters repeatedly with inflammatory rhetoric on everything from immigration to foreign relations.
One senior administration official said Trump has focused on action rather than racial reconciliation and national unity because of a desire to show Americans that something was being done about the destruction looters had wrought on U.S. cities.
“Unity is great and that should be the ultimate goal, but you also have to deal with the issue at hand,” the official said.
One former White House official said Trump’s remarks in a White House Rose Garden speech on Monday reflected the influence of more hawkish members of his team over those seen as more moderate, such as his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Ivanka Trump, wearing a mask, was part of the group that walked with the president to Saint John’s Church on Monday, but she did not stand with her father for the photo session.
Others did not wear masks. Pence, who frequently references his religious beliefs, was not present.
Another senior administration official said Trump made clear to advisers on Monday that he wanted to give a clear “law and order” address.
A majority of Americans sympathize with the nationwide protests over the death of Floyd and disapprove of Trump’s response to the unrest, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)