Senate Republicans strike more sombre tone about protests — but most stay silent on Trump's protest rhetoric

'The overwhelming issue for us is after you stop the rioting — which we will — what are you going to do about the problem that led to protest?' Trump ally Graham says

Griffin Connolly
Tuesday 02 June 2020 23:53
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As Donald Trump continues to underscore the need to "dominate" the streets of American cities with law enforcement — and potentially active military units — to root out violence at protests against police brutality protests that have swept the country, many Senate Republicans have struck more solemn notes stressing the need for reconciliation and racial unity.

Yet nearly all of them initially declined to rebuke the president for his staged photo op at St John’s Episcopal Church on Monday shortly after horse-mounted law enforcement personnel used tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bang grenades to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters so Mr Trump could safely make his way to the famed church.

At the start of a Senate Judiciary hearing on the effects of Covid-19 on American prison systems on Tuesday, Republican Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina highlighted the lack of trust between many black communities and their police forces.

Many prominent black pastors in the Palmetto State hold seminars for black teenagers after church services on how to respond when confronted by police, Mr Graham explained.

“I never remember that discussion in my church,” he said.

“The last thing I think about when a cop’s behind me is that I'm [under] threat. I wonder, ‘Did I go too fast?’ And that's the way it is,” he said.

“If you're a young African-American man in parts of this country, that's not the first thing you think about. And we just need to get to the bottom of how that happened and what can we do to fix it,” Mr Graham said.

The chairman said he would pencil in a hearing for 16 June — the earliest viable date on the committee’s schedule — on the death of George Floyd and policing in America.

It has been a balancing act for Senate Republicans to condemn the vandalism and looting that has marked many protests while acknowledging the pain of black communities in America after Mr Floyd died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and back for several minutes, despite pleas from Mr Floyd that he couldn’t breathe.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent much of his opening floor remarks on Tuesday decrying the “looting and violent rioting” that has damaged people and local businesses in cities across the country over the last several days, the Kentucky Republican also said Americans were “united in horror and opposition to the violent killing of Mr Floyd.”

“The legitimate and important voices of peaceful protesters will never be heard over the wailing of fire alarms, the smashing of plate-glass windows, and the sirens of ambulances coming for police officers who have been assaulted or shot in the head,” Mr McConnell said in a plea to end the chaos on American streets.

Mr Trump gave a speech at the White House Rose Garden threatening to deploy “heavily armed” US military troops to cities to crush violent elements of protests that have swept the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis.

The president said he would send in troops even if mayors and governors objected, an action that *could run afoul of* guardrails against the executive branch sending active duty military units to uphold civil laws on US soil.

In a phone conversation with governors earlier in the day, Mr Trump stressed the need to "dominate" the streets with a strong law enforcement presence of police officers and National Guardsmen. He called governors "weak" for their response to widespread pockets of violence, looting, and vandalism that have marked many of the protests over the last several days.

While Mr Trump has said he will "stand with" the family of Mr Floyd — who died last week in Minneapolis after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and back for several minutes despite Mr Floyd's pleas that he couldn't breathe — the prevailing message from the White House has been that states must do more to curb riotous behaviour.

While most Senate Republicans declined to directly confront the Trump administration’s rhetoric describing the American streets as a “battlespace,” at least two, Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, criticised the president for his photo op at St John’s and the clearing of peaceful protesters beforehand.

The scene at Lafayette Square just north of the White House on Monday “was not the America that I know,” Ms Murkowski told NBC News.

“The tone coming from the president right now isn’t helping. It's not helping me as a leader,” she added.

Mr Sasse also issued a rare rebuke of Mr Trump for his actions on Monday evening, when the president posed before TV cameras and photojournalists with a bible in his right hand and with St John's in the background.

"There is a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest,” Mr Sasse said in a statement to Politico, “and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”

Senate Republicans, even ones like Mr Graham who have cosy relationships with the president, often strike much less bombastic tones than him.

That disparity in rhetoric has been on full display this week as senators have been forced to answer questions about the protests from the press.

“The overwhelming issue for us is after you stop the rioting — which we will — what are you going to do about the problem that led to protest?” Mr Graham said at his committee’s hearing on Tuesday.

“I think this committee has a unique opportunity to build on some things that the Obama administration did, and ask ourselves some hard questions,” he said.

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