Trump’s Record on Police Brutality and Peaceful Protests: Making the Problem Worse

President Donald Trump walks toward St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., after giving a televised address. His remarks followed days of nationwide protests against police brutality, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, June 2020.

As nationwide protests against police brutality continue, President Donald Trump is doing what he always does: making things worse. Rather than listen to protestors and take steps to address the systemic issues that led to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Trump has continually escalated the problem with his inflammatory rhetoric, including by telling governors to “dominate” protestors, threatening to send in the military, and using decades-old racist dog whistles—as well as by using actual violence against peaceful protestors outside the White House.

None of this should be surprising. For his entire political career, Trump has advocated police brutality and escalations of violence against perceived political opponents, and he has stood against peaceful protests.

Police brutality

Encouraged police officers to use force when making arrests: Trump’s most notorious comment on police brutality came in a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers in Long Island, New York. In his speech, Trump said, “Please don’t be too nice,” telling the officers that he believed “the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years, they’ve been made to protect the criminal … [n]ot the officers.” He told officers that they would no longer need to take precautions against injuring suspects when placing them in a police car, saying, “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just seen them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”

Advocated the use of stop-and-frisk policies: Trump has repeatedly called for the expansion of racist stop-and-frisk policing tactics, which federal judges have found unconstitutional. In a September 2016 town hall interview with Fox News, then-candidate Trump told the audience, if elected, “I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to. We did it in New York, it worked incredibly well and you have to be proactive and, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind automatically.” Meanwhile, evidence strongly suggests that stop-and-frisk policies not only are ineffective at deterring crime but may even be counterproductive, as they reduce community trust in policing. In 2018, Trump proposed using stop-and-frisk tactics to combat gun violence in Chicago, promising to “straighten it out, and … straighten it out fast” and falsely said the policy “works, and it was meant for problems like Chicago.”

Perpetuated rumors about Black teenagers participating in the “knockout game”: In 2013, conservative media underwent a racist moral panic over largely apocryphal stories that gangs of predominantly Black teenagers were playing the knockout game—running around and knocking out innocent civilians. Trump joined the panic, tweeting, “Of course there is” a racial component and that, in response, it was important to be “slightly more vicious (and violent) than the assaulter-and crime would end FAST!” He also appeared to advocate vigilante justice, telling people to “please remember the late, great Charles Bronson”—an actor famous for playing vigilantes, most notably in the “Death Wish” film franchise—and said, “The scum that gets high on badly hurting old ladies and others through knockout assaults wouldn’t feel that way with a gun at their head!”

Criminal justice

Called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five: In 1989, Trump famously took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York state after the conviction of the Central Park Five—five Black and Latino teenagers falsely accused of assaulting and raping a white, female jogger. Despite the confession of the confirmed rapist and genetic evidence that categorically prove that the five teenagers were wrongfully convicted, Trump stood by his claims that they were guilty, both in 2016 and in 2019.

Supported the death penalty for drug dealers: In a March 2018 speech about efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, Trump called for the use of the death penalty against drug dealers, saying, “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.” His attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, echoed the sentiment, pledging that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) would “seek the death penalty wherever appropriate.”

Praised Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte: Trump has praised President Duterte’s brutal crackdown on drug dealers in the country. In a 2017 phone call, Trump told Duterte, “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” At the time of Trump and Duterte’s call, police and vigilantes in the Philippines had killed more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers, mostly without any form of due process, in less than a year since Duterte had taken office.

Protests

Encouraged violence against protestors at rallies: During the 2016 election, Trump routinely suggested that attendees at his rallies attack peaceful protestors and said that he would pay the legal bills of anybody who did. In February and March 2016 alone, Trump made such remarks during at least eight rallies in eight states, including Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Missouri, and Florida. Although he subsequently denied that he was advocating violence, even blaming the Clinton campaign for any violence at his events, his remarks—including explicitly exhorting attendees to “knock the crap out of” hecklers and saying he had “instructed my people to look into” paying the legal fees of a man who was arrested for assaulting a Black protestor at a rally in North Carolina—prove otherwise.

Criticized Colin Kaepernick and other football players protesting police brutality: Trump has repeatedly criticized football players, most notably former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for peacefully protesting police brutality by kneeling or staying in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem. Calling their protests “a total disrespect of our heritage,” Trump has said that he believes owners should get any player who protests “off the field right now, out, he’s fired,” and suggested that anybody who refused to stand for the anthem “shouldn’t be in the country.” In June 2018, Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the traditional post-championship White House visit because of the protests, even though none of the Eagles’ players had actually participated. He’s also continued tweeting about kneeling during the wave of protests after George Floyd’s death, attacking New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for withdrawing their criticisms of the kneeling protests.

Praised the Chinese government’s actions during the Tiananmen Square massacre: In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, Trump explicitly praised China’s brutal crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square, saying, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.” Asked about the comments during the 2016 election, Trump doubled down, saying he didn’t personally consider it an endorsement but again calling the Chinese response—which ended with hundreds dead and thousands injured after the military opened fire on protestors—a show of “a strong, powerful government.”

Other instances of violence

Encouraged opponents of gun control to target Hillary Clinton if elected: During the 2016 election, Trump appeared to suggest that, if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became president, opponents of gun control may have to assassinate her to prevent her from appointing Supreme Court justices who might support gun control. At a rally in August 2016, Trump mused, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Though the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.” Trump has claimed that his comments were misinterpreted and that he was merely praising the “strong, powerful” anti-gun-control movement.

Praised Rep. Greg Gianforte when he body-slammed a reporter: The night before the special election in which he was elected to federal office, Rep. Gianforte (R-MT) body-slammed a reporter to avoid answering a question about whether he supported Trump’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Gianforte was subsequently charged with assault and sentenced to community service and anger-management classes. While campaigning for Gianforte’s reelection in 2018, Trump praised Gianforte’s act of violence, saying, “Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!” He then added that he had at first worried whether it would hurt Gianforte politically, before thinking, “Wait a moment, I know Montana.” Asked about his comments the next day, Trump said he had no regrets, saying, “That was a tremendous success last night in Montana and Greg is a great person, he’s a tough cookie, and I’ll stay with that.”

Touted a false story about Gen. John Pershing’s violent response to terrorists: Trump has praised the use of not only violence but also purposeful cruelty against perceived opponents, through his invocation of an apocryphal story about Gen. John Pershing. According to Trump, Pershing crushed a rebellion in the Philippines by capturing “50 terrorists” and shooting all but one with bullets smeared in pig’s blood, which ended “Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years” in the country. As with most of Trump’s stories, there appears to be no truth to this one: Actual historians have found no evidence that Pershing ever did what Trump claims. Unusually, Trump’s team has actually acknowledged the lack of evidence: Then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said it doesn’t matter that the story almost certainly didn’t happen, as the point was to make “an analogy” about the need for a strong response to terrorism.

How the Trump administration has turned words into action

Trump’s words and track record are not just empty rhetoric; even before the administration’s appalling use of tear gas and rubber projectiles to disperse peaceful protestors for a photo op at St. John’s church in Washington, D.C., it has been trying to put his cruel ideas into action.

For example, early in his tenure as Trump’s first attorney general, Sessions ordered a review of consent decrees that the DOJ had used to reform local police departments under the Obama administration; the Trump administration claimed these decrees unfairly vilified law enforcement. Shortly before Trump forced him out in November 2018, Sessions signed a memorandum drastically limiting the DOJ’s ability to use the decrees. These changes included mandating that two political appointees—not nonpartisan career officials—sign off on the decrees and that the decrees would have a mandatory sunset date rather than remaining in force until the agencies improved their behaviors.

In 2018, the Trump administration also tried to delay the implementation of an Obama-era consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department, which was found to have engaged in a racist pattern of abuse of power and systemic misconduct. In its efforts, the DOJ argued that consent decrees designed to prevent such misconduct were responsible for increases in crime. The Trump administration would likely have been able to block the reform from going into effect if not for a federal judge who moved ahead with the deal despite its opposition. In another example related to law enforcement, Trump signed in 2017 an executive order overturning restrictions on local law enforcement agencies obtaining military equipment, including grenade launchers and bayonets.

The Trump administration has also proposed drastically increasing the use of law enforcement to combat homelessness. Given that people of color make up a disproportionate number of those facing homelessness across the country, the policy would almost certainly fall hardest on already overpoliced communities of color and lead to increased abuses.

Finally, leaked documents from the FBI have shown that, under Trump, the bureau has prioritized investigating “black identity extremists” as a bigger threat than terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and white supremacist organizations. The documents blame “Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans” for an increase in “premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement.” In other words: The FBI can effectively claim that protestors fighting against systemic racial inequality are actually terrorists attacking law enforcement.

Conclusion

Time and again, President Donald Trump has advocated police brutality, criticized peaceful protest, and praised the use of violence and outright cruelty against perceived political opponents. Meanwhile, Trump and his administration have been all but silent on ways to address the kinds of systemic racial inequalities that led to Floyd’s murder, preferring to grandstand about “LAW & ORDER” and meet with law enforcement leaders. As the White House reportedly considers a major speech on “race and national unity,” it’s hard not to wonder whether Trump is even capable of making such a speech—or if he can only make things worse.

Jeremy Venook is a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.