I asked police, veterans and a former CIA agent what they think of Trump's response to the protests. Even they are horrified

'It's funny that our response to people complaining about overwhelming force is to use overwhelming force. That’s bats**t crazy'

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Tuesday 02 June 2020 17:05 BST
A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan said methods that were supposed to be used against foreign enemies were being deployed against protesters
A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan said methods that were supposed to be used against foreign enemies were being deployed against protesters (AP)

When historians of the future look back on Donald Trump’s presidency, they may well mark June 1st, 2020 as “a date that will live in infamy”.

That phrase was etched into the nation’s collective consciousness nearly eight decades ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as he addressed Congress in the wake of Japan’s December 7, 1941 sneak attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

By attacking the US fleet, Japan made clear that the geopolitical tensions which had strained its relationship with the United States during the preceding decade had reached breaking point. And if anyone in either country thought the smoking hulks and dead American servicemen strewn about Pearl Harbor were open to interpretation, the formal declaration of war signed that day made Tokyo’s intentions clear: America was now Japan’s enemy, and Japan and its allies were bent on America’s destruction.

Like December 7, 1941, Americans will remember the first day of June 2020 as the date of a sneak attack against their countrymen, but while that 78-year-old atrocity was perpetrated by a foreign government, this one came from within.

That afternoon, as hundreds of Americans protested peacefully outside the gates of the mansion that has been home to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, its current occupant was plotting.

That man, Donald Trump, was incensed by media reports which revealed how he’d reacted to the appearance of a few hundred demonstrators outside the White House gates on Friday.

They came from all over the Washington, DC area to protest the police brutality and systematic inequality symbolised by the late George Floyd, a Minneapolis, Minnesota man killed by police officers just one week ago.

As they massed outside the “people’s house,” they chanted Floyd’s last words, uttered as he gasped for breath as a white police officer’s knee pressed on his neck: “I can’t breathe”.

And how did Donald Trump react? He retreated to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, the Second World War-era bunker installed under the White House’s East Wing to protect FDR against a potential Luftwaffe bomber attack. Later expanded and hardened to protect presidents against nuclear explosions, it’s where then-Vice President Dick Cheney took refuge in 2001, as hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center and smashed a hole in the Pentagon.

Though he initially praised Secret Service officers for exhibiting restraint against the “professionally managed so-called ‘protesters’ at the White House,” administration officials said Trump later became upset at how the news of his retreat to the White House bunker made him look weak. And so he responded with what he thinks of as strength.

As he prepared to deliver remarks in the White House Rose Garden just three days later, a phalanx of shield-bearing federal police, joined by line after line of officers on horseback, suddenly opened fire on those peaceful protesters, clearing them from Lafayette Park with tear gas, pepper balls, rubber bullets, and other “less than lethal” munitions.

Not even members of the press were safe, as one Australian broadcasting crew found out when an officer began shoving and striking a videographer with a shield.

The reason for the sneak attack? After Trump finished his Rose Garden speech, in which he threatened to “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem” of mass protesters unless the nation’s governors use National Guard forces to “dominate the streets,” he wanted to be photographed as he walked across the street to a historic church, Saint John’s Episcopal, which had been the scene of unrest the previous night.

Trump holds up bible outside Washington church

And with the smell of tear gas still hanging in the air, Trump stood outside the empty building, known as the “Church of Presidents,” and held up an upside-down bible for the cameras.

Earlier that day, Trump had hosted governors on a conference call, during which he scolded them for being “weak” by allowing the demonstrations to persist. And as night fell, helicopters with US Army markings flew low over protesters, using their rotor wash to drive them away while shattering glass and snapping tree limbs in the process.

It’s a flying manoeuvre known as a “show of force,” but one pilot I spoke to — an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran — said it’s a technique they learn for use against enemy insurgents overseas, not Americans protesting on the streets of Washington.

Dr Bandy Lee, a Yale University Medical School psychiatrist who studies violence, said the militaristic attack on protesters and the press — which occurred on Trump’s orders — reflected how he feels about most Americans.

“He probably views most of the American people as his enemy now, because of all the criticism, because of his falling polls, and because of the result of his own mishandling of the pandemic increasingly pressing in,” she said. “It's not a reality he can easily subvert with his own fantasy thinking.”

Lee said the increasingly violent response on the part of police as they’ve put down protests across the country is the result of officers taking their cues from Trump.

“We have a president who is making violence symbolically acceptable … by anticipating that once the looting starts, the shooting will start, by labeling protesters as thugs, and by threatening vicious dogs and ominous weapons if protestors ever came close,” she explained. “These are all trigger signals for police brutality, and it would be actually be surprising if it didn't happen.”

Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who now works as a police detective in Georgia, said he did not want to directly blame Trump for the actions taken against journalists by police officers across the country, but told me the president “certainly bears responsibility for it” because his rhetoric “doesn’t help”.

“I don't know if I blame Trump for this, but he's certainly not stepping up to the occasion,” he added.

But Skinner did take issue with the view, popular in some police circles, that Trump has “taken the shackles” off law enforcement by rolling back Obama-era reforms.

Asked whether Trump’s rhetoric has given police permission to be more violent than they might have been otherwise, Skinner replied: “Yes.”

“Is it a silent dog whistle? I don’t want to get into all that, but I believe that anyone in a position of leadership needs to not just not tolerate that stuff but actually be affirmative, to speak out against excesses,” he said. “But he's not speaking out against excesses, he’s objecting to the reaction to the excesses.”

Skinner posited that some of the wanton violence against protesters and the press can be attributed to a mentality among police that they are soldiers in a “war on crime”.

“They’re not wearing a uniform … so they have to be on the other side — everything stems from that,” he said. “Obviously the riots are a failure in society, but the reaction that we have all these military tools and that we want to use them? It's funny that our response to people complaining about overwhelming force is to use overwhelming force. That’s bats**t crazy.”

Skinner maintained that Trump still bears some responsibility because his word carries weight with law enforcement: “He’s the President of the United States, and so millions and millions of people are going to listen to that, and certainly some people who are in the police department are going to listen to that. It's irresponsible and it’s a dereliction of duty.”

Dr Peter Moskos, an ex-Baltimore City police officer who chairs the department of law, police science, and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said some of the police reaction to the protests and officers’ affinity for the president is a reflection of a solidly blue-collar, conservative culture which pervades law enforcement, but said Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened the bad actors among them.

“In a way, Trump is their id, and he does normalize bad behavior,” Moskos said. “Before, they might have had to keep things quiet because they knew they weren't supposed to say certain things because they’d get in trouble, but now they don't give a s**t.”

“Speech — bad speech and hate speech — has consequences. That's become a much easier argument for me to make since Trump has become president,” he added. “Of course it influences some people, but it doesn't have to influence all of them. That's what makes it dangerous.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in