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President Trump sinks amid stumbles over protests

By Brett Samuels and Morgan Chalfant, The Hill

President Trump is sinking behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in polls less than five months from Election Day amid a series of damaging responses to the national protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Trump’s rhetoric has been out of step with public polling that shows the majority of Americans are much more outraged over the treatment by police of Floyd — who died after a call about a fake $20 bill led to one officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck to pin him to the street for more than eight minutes — than they are by protesters.  

The president has struggled to offer a unifying or consistent message as the country has been convulsed with calls for change. Instead, Trump has sent inflammatory tweets demeaning protesters while digging in on his commitment to law enforcement.

He’s compounded his problems with an embrace of conspiracy theories, most recently on Tuesday when he tweeted that a 75-year-old man who remains hospitalized with a head injury after being pushed by police in Buffalo, N.Y., was part of a “set up.”

“The President’s penchant for trafficking in conspiracy theories is, politically speaking, going to ruin him,” Ari Fleischer, a press secretary for former President George W. Bush, tweeted in response to the president’s comments. “This is reckless. He doesn’t know when to stop.”

Trump’s tweet sparked criticism from some Senate Republicans, while others declined to comment when confronted about it.

It was just the most recent example of Trump’s allies groaning over a self-inflicted political wound. Earlier tweets and a decision to use police to aggressively clear streets near the White House for a photo-op led to fierce criticism from retired members of the military. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she was struggling over whether to support Trump.

One former Trump campaign official credited the president with acting quickly to instruct the Justice Department to launch a civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death, which Trump announced two days after Floyd was killed. The former official also argued that Trump’s message of restoring law and order would resonate with many Americans.

“I think those are things that get lost in the daily grind of partisan media trying to create something out of thin air,” the former official said.

Trump is said to be considering a speech on race that he could deliver as soon as this week. But some former White House officials concede Trump is not well-equipped to talk about racial unrest and is better served focusing his messaging on the economy, given his history of controversial rhetoric on race. 

Instead, the White House has used other officials to talk about race and discuss moves going forward.

Vice President Pence met privately at the White House on Monday with prominent African Americans, including Senate Chaplain Barry Black and Angela Stanton-King, who was pardoned by Trump and is now running to unseat Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, chief of staff Mark Meadows and presidential aide Ja’Ron Smith, who is black, met on Capitol Hill with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on Tuesday to discuss policing reform as lawmakers in both parties work on legislation on the issue.

Trump did veer off to speak about Floyd at a Friday Rose Garden address held to discuss a positive jobs report, but it led to awkward results and bad headlines. Trump said that “hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country,” adding “this is a great day for him, it’s a great day for everybody.”

In an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted last week, most respondents said they trusted Trump on handling the economy. But 51 percent said Biden would be better to bring the country together, compared to just 26 percent who said Trump was more equipped for the task. 

Biden also got higher marks when respondents were asked which candidate would be better at addressing the concerns of the African American and Latino communities.

The former vice president faced intense criticism during the Democratic primary for his role in the 1994 crime bill and past stances on busing. But he garnered strong support among African American voters and has managed to draw a sharp contrast with Trump amid the recent protests.

Biden made a rare trip away from his home when he visited the site of a protest in Delaware. He also met with Floyd’s family before a memorial service in Houston on Monday and delivered a video message at his funeral on Tuesday. Biden has called for policing reform without embracing the “defund the police” movement popular among more progressive members of the party, amid efforts by Trump’s campaign to tie him to it.  

Trump and administration officials, meanwhile, have shown over the past two weeks that their views may be out of step with the national consensus.

The president on Monday said he believes “99 percent” of police are “great  people.” Trump’s attorney general and national security adviser have also rejected that there is systemic bias in law enforcement against African Americans.

A majority of Americans, 57 percent, believe police in a difficult situation are more likely to use excessive force on a black suspect than a white suspect, according to a Monmouth University Poll  survey released last week, a jump of more than 20 percentage points from July 2016. The responses fell along party lines, with 24 percent of Republicans saying a black suspect is more likely to be subject to excessive force compared to a majority of Democrats and independents.

Trump has also reiterated his opposition to professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest injustice, even as the NFL issued a mea culpa acknowledging it was wrong not to encourage players to speak out.

Some have questioned whether Trump’s law-and-order message will resonate with voters given changing attitudes and demographics nationally.

Anthony Scaramucci, who served a brief stint as White House communications director in 2018 and has since become a vocal Trump critic, likened the president to George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who ran for president on a law-and-order platform in 1968.

“He said a few things at the NASA space center, and he said a few things at the Rose Garden [about Floyd],” Scaramucci said in an interview. “And he’s saying those sorts of things, but he’s not saying anything about identifying institutional or systemic racism. He’s not capable of doing that.”

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