Democrats handed Trump a huge political gift with 'defund the police' - now he's thrown it away

'The President's penchant for trafficking in conspiracy theories is, politically speaking, going to ruin him,' tweeted George W Bush White House Press Secretary Air Fleischer

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday 09 June 2020 19:06 BST
Meghan McCain and Kamala Harris talk police defunding

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Things were shifting towards Joe Biden late last week in a big way. Then, more yellow paint appeared on a Washington, DC, street near the White House. But as quickly as a door opened for Donald Trump, the president might have slammed it shut.

Aerial images showed the giant "Black lives matter" block letters on what is now called "Black Lives Matter Plaza" had been added to. "Defund the police" had been painted alongside sometime early Sunday morning.

With one word – "defund" – some activists and the Democratic politicians who embraced the phrase handed Donald Trump and Republicans a political gift.

"There won't be defunding. 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," the president said Monday afternoon during a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House.

"We want to make sure we don't have any bad actors in there. And, sometimes, you'll see some horrible things, like we witnessed recently," he said, appearing to refer to the death of George Floyd, a black man, in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis. "But 99 [per cent], I say 99.9 [per cent], but let's go with 99 per cent of them are great, great people."

Activists protesting the pattern of black deaths while in police custody sensed a public shift towards police reform even before polls could be finalised showing just that.

Sixty-nine per cent of those surveyed recently said Mr Floyd's death under the knee of a white police officer is part of a broader problem within law enforcement, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll. Six years ago, 43 per cent said there were problems with policing in the United States. And 47 per cent of Republicans said there are major policing issues — up from just 19 per cent in 2014.

So it was a perfect opportunity, amid large and nightly protests across the country, for police-reform advocates and Democrats to press for major changes in how officers interact with suspects and those in custody.

But then "defund" happened.

It wasn't long before those involved in coining the term and pushing it out on social media and television interviews appeared to realise they had a problem.

That's when they tried, in varying and seemingly uncoordinated ways, to redefine the word "defund" – even sometimes suggesting it had nothing to do with funding.

"Democrats are often on alert for seeming to cater to the most extreme demands of protesters," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics.

"We have to reimagine safety and public safety in America. You know, the status quo has been to determine and create policy around the idea that more police equals more safety. And that's just wrong," California Senator Kamala Harris, a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee, told MSNBC.

"What creates safe and healthy communities? Making sure that all people have access to health care, mental health care, and that it is within their reach, meaning it is affordable," she added. "These are the things that create safe communities."

Like other elected Democrats, Ms Harris went on to suggest "defund the police" means only partially doing so, then shifting those dollars to other things like public education systems and investing in black communities to create jobs.

Joe Biden, the former vice president and presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, tried to walk a tightrope. He issued a statement saying he opposes any effort to strip police departments of funding, saying instead he wants policing reforms.

"This is a tricky issue for Joe Biden because African Americans have very little confidence in the ability of police officers to treat people of all races fairly," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. "However, a majority of white Americans still have faith in the thin blue line (police)."

Mr Biden's tightrope-walking continued on Tuesday when he spoke at Mr Floyd's funeral, this time reaching out to black voters and white liberals.

"No child should have to ask questions that too many black children have had to ask for generations: Why, why is daddy gone?" Mr Biden said. "Why in this nation can too many black Americans wake up knowing ... they could lose their life in living their life."

The former VP is getting high marks for his handling of the "defund" matter.

"Biden has handled the crisis well, and he refused to jump through the ideological hoops," Mr Bannon said. "He announced that he doesn't support proposals to defund the police but said he does favour proposals to end police brutality. Biden's position reflects the new proposal by the House Democratic leadership and the Congressional Black Caucus to reform but not defund the police."

Mr Kondik noted "the public seems more receptive to doing something about racial disparities in policing than they have been at other times in the recent past. At this point, Biden seems like he might have an easier time speaking to the middle of the electorate on this issue."

As Democrats found themselves in a politically tricky position over the "defund the police" matter, Mr Trump on Tuesday morning appeared to hand them a gift right back when he took what Mr Bannon called an "extreme position" and Mr Kondik dubbed an "egregious" one.

"Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?" the president tweeted.

What's more, "Trump does not really have any proposals to address these policing issues, and he is gravitating towards extremism in his own response," Mr Kondik said. "The public, so far, also does not appear to be siding with the president on this matter."

Handed what could have been a much-needed political gift, Mr Trump, frankly, could not help himself. Rather than continuing to try tying Mr Biden to the "defund the police movement," the president opted to tie himself to right-wing conspiracy theorists. Rather than pick up a win, he has, at best, battled the former VP to a draw – that means, based on the president's souring poll numbers, advantage Biden.

"The President's penchant for trafficking in conspiracy theories is, politically speaking, going to ruin him," tweeted former George W Bush White House Press Secretary Air Fleischer. "This is reckless. He doesn't know when to stop."

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