White House divided on Trump addressing racial tensions

Source: Politico | May 31, 2020 | Nancy Cook

The infighting over a formal speech reflects the bigger question of how to soothe a country also grappling with a health and economic crisis.

As protests continue to flare across the country, President Donald Trump and his top aides cannot settle on the next steps the White House should take to ease tensions after the latest death of an African American man detained by a white police officer.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been pushing for the president to deliver a formal address to the nation to emphasize his support for law and order and police officers, a familiar trope for the Republican Party and one that typically plays well with its base.

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with several other top aides, argued against such a move, fearing the tone could alienate key voters ahead of the November election, including African Americans whose support the administration has been trying to court. An address would also detract from the president’s message of trying to restart the economy as quickly as possible, allies said. The president’s last formal address — in mid-March from the Oval Office, dealing with the growing coronavirus crisis — was not viewed internally as a success, since the White House had to later clarify several points from the hastily written speech, which Trump appeared uncomfortable delivering.

This infighting over a potential speech signifies a much broader question facing the White House, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior administration officials and Republicans close to the administration: How can the president soothe and lead a nation at a moment when more than 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, another 40 million are unemployed, and protests are raging through the U.S. after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last Monday?

Amid this swirl of crises, the Trump administration and its staffers have struggled to find the right tone and path to calm the country. The president keeps veering between expressing condolences for the death of Floyd, as he did in Florida at the SpaceX launch on Saturday, and then tweeting out far harsher rhetoric on protesters, looters or the Democratic leaders of the cities in which the protests have occurred. Trump made no public appearances on Sunday and did not leave the White House.

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Bashing Antifa is expected to be a familiar refrain this week from the Trump White House. Trump previewed this by tweeting on Sunday that he intended to designate Antifa a domestic terrorist organization, a move that critics say he lacks the legal authority to do since Antifa is not, in fact, an organization.

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Several White House aides and Trump allies have argued over the weekend against any type of Oval Office address in the coming days.

“The protests are not just connected to the death of George Floyd. They are connected to the overall frustration with the economic downturn and coronavirus,” said Jason Miller, a former senior communications adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “There are no magical words of unity that can fix someone’s missing paycheck, or no magical words of unity on George Floyd.”

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