President Donald Trump defied requests to stay away and arrived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday, offering support for law enforcement in a city upended by civil unrest after a white police officer shot a Black man in the back.
With the United States polarized over issues of racial injustice and police use of force, Trump is appealing to his base of white supporters with a “law and order” message as opinion polls show him narrowing the lead of his Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden.
Wisconsin is a political battleground state that the Republican Trump won narrowly in 2016 and badly needs to keep in his column as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.
The president visited a burned-out furniture store that was destroyed in the upheaval and then a makeshift command center to praise National Guard troops who are reinforcing local police.
“This ended within an hour,” Trump said, referring to the relative peace that followed the arrival of federal law enforcement officers.
“You have to be decisive, you have to be tough, and you have to be strong. And you have to be willing to bring people in,” Trump said.
The state’s Democratic governor and the city’s Democratic mayor both urged Trump to avoid Kenosha to prevent inflaming tensions and allow citizens to heal, but the president dismissed their appeals in order to show support for law enforcement and business owners whose stores were looted and set ablaze.
Trump has sought to blame Democrats, calling them soft on the violence and property damage that has broken out at anti-racism protests since George Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck.
The country was still reckoning with that case when a white officer in Kenosha fired seven shots at the back of Jacob Blake, 29, as he entered his car on Aug. 23.
Kenosha has become one of the flashpoint cities where anti-racist demonstrators have clashed with Trump supporters who have converged on protest sites, sometimes openly carrying arms while vowing to protect property from looters.
A 17-year-old Trump supporter has been charged with killing two people and wounding another with a semi-automatic rifle in Kenosha. Trump defended the white teenager, who faces six criminal counts, and declined to condemn violence from his supporters.
But in Portland, Oregon, site of three months of nightly protests that have often turned violent, a Trump supporter was shot dead on Saturday and the president lamented that “they executed a man in the street.”
‘LAW AND ORDER’
The president takes credit for restoring peace in Kenosha since National Guard and federal law enforcement reinforcements were sent in. Although Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers called in more National Guard troops on his own authority, Trump sent in about 200 federal law enforcement officials.
Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser until Monday, said last week the president stood to benefit politically from the kind of unrest that erupted in Kenosha.
Meanwhile he has largely overlooked the racial wounds caused by police use of force and plays down the more than 180,000 U.S. deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
At last week’s Republican National Convention Trump portrayed Biden as a leader whose policies would create further chaos in the streets, trying to link Biden to vandals and left-leaning, violent activists.
Biden has responded by calling for rioters and looters to be prosecuted while saying Trump himself was stoking the violence with divisive rhetoric, calling the president “too weak, too scared of the hatred he has stirred to put an end to it.”
Peaceful demonstrators have complained that violent agitators, often white, have hijacked their protests with property damage.
Trump’s trip has increased expectations that Biden would also visit Kenosha. Biden’s campaign has said he will soon go to Wisconsin, where he has a lead in the polls, but has not disclosed details.