Over the three-and-a-half years he’s been in office, President Trump has clashed repeatedly with government institutions that he sought to bend to his will.
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The first fight came with the nation’s intelligence agencies, then the FBI, the diplomatic corps and, more recently, the quasi-independent inspectors general at federal agencies.
This week, though, brought a battle with the military — a clash with far more serious implications.
For Trump, the decision to push the Pentagon into politics was a fateful choice, and it quickly brought an extraordinary rebuke.
“Mockery of the Constitution”
As has often been the case with Trump, the impetus seems to have been his desire to appear tough.
Since the start last week of nationwide protests over police brutality, Trump’s aides had debated how he should respond. Some talked of an Oval Office address to the nation, others advocated public “listening sessions” designed to showcase the president talking with black Americans about their concerns.
It’s unclear whether Trump ever seriously considered either of those approaches. His past attempts at each have gone badly.
By Monday, however, officials say Trump’s focus had shifted: He was angry about news reports which accurately said that the Secret Service had hustled him down to the White House’s underground bunker on Friday when protests in downtown Washington turned violent. He wanted to counteract that image with something that would showcase him looking powerful.
That set the stage for one of the indelible moments of the Trump presidency: Monday evening, military police, national guard troops, Park Police and other federal law enforcement agents confronted a peaceful crowd of demonstrators in Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House, and suddenly, as television cameras recorded the scene, assaulted them with tear gas and rubber bullets.
(White House officials the next day tried to insist that “tear gas” hadn’t been used, a claim based on a narrow definition of tear gas, which, in any case, appears to be false based on shell canisters reporters have found in the park.)
As the mayhem unfolded, Trump began speaking in the White House Rose Garden, threatening to send troops to American cities if state and local officials failed to halt protests that he described as “rioting.” He then walked out of the north gate of the White House, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top officials in tow, passed through the park, now devoid of protesters, and posed for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal church, which had been damaged by fire during protests over the weekend.
By the next day, both Trump’s campaign and Joe Biden‘s were using video and still images of that walk across the park in their advertising. Trump’s side believed the scene portrayed strength, power and toughness. Biden’s side saw bullying, recklessness and contempt for free speech.
With both campaigns focused for now on motivating their core supporters, not reaching out to the voters in between, it’s possible both could be correct in seeing the images as helpful to their cause. But the aftermath did not end there.
Trump’s decision to pull the military into a political fight, and his threat to go further and invoke the Insurrection Act, a law dating to the early 19th century, to send troops to other cities, provoked a swift and negative reaction in the top ranks. (If you wonder how the Insurrection Act works, we have you covered.)
The military is one of the few institutions that still enjoys widespread approval in a deeply divided country, largely because the public sees it as nonpolitical. Top commanders have made a high priority of preserving that. Trump does not.
That’s the context for the outpouring that dominated this week.
The pattern was a familiar one — statements from anonymous Pentagon officials to reporters distancing the brass from the White House, followed by stronger language from retired top commanders, who are free to criticize the commander-in-chief in ways that their active-duty former colleagues cannot.
What was not familiar was the intensity, starting with former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, who, as David Cloud reported, accused Trump of ordering the military to “violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote in The Atlantic. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” he said, adding that Americans “must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
A phalanx of other retired commanders followed: Retired four-star Gen. John R. Allen warned that Trump
“could wreck the high regard Americans have for their military, and much more.”
The former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, wrote that Trump had “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”
Another former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in an interview with National Public Radio that “the idea that the military would be called in to dominate and to suppress what, for the most part, were peaceful protests — admittedly, where some had opportunistically turned them violent — and that the military would somehow come in and calm that situation was very dangerous.”
Former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, also a former Marine Corps four-star, spoke out to praise Mattis. Esper, confronted by a problem far beyond what he expected, called a news conference at which he said he opposed use of the Insurrection Act, potentially putting his job at risk.
The criticism from military leaders effectively ended — at least for now — talk of sending troops to U.S. cities. Troops that the administration had summoned to Washington quietly started to return to Ft. Bragg in North Carolina on Thursday.
But the political impact on Trump seems likely to be more lasting. Only a handful of Republican elected officials — most notably Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — publicly praised Mattis. But few spoke out clearly in support of Trump, either.
Trump’s effort to militarize the response to the protests has left him isolated, and the new fences that his administration has erected around a large swath of downtown Washington, reinforced the image of a president alienated from much of the country.
Even in a fight with the military, most of Trump’s voters will almost surely stick with him.
But the support Trump receives from his base is increasingly beside the point. Rather than a source of strength, catering to his base has become a trap for a president who is behind in the polls and badly in need of a way to broaden his backing. Picking a fight with the country’s most-admired institution almost surely won’t help.
Unemployment bottoming out
What could help Trump is a revival of the economy, and the president was quick to crow over Friday’s jobs report, which provided a significantly better unemployment picture for May than most economists had projected, as Don Lee wrote.
Trump hailed the report on Twitter as “a stupendous number,” and the stock market rose briskly. He quickly scheduled a White House news conference.
But while a 13.3% unemployment rate is a lot better than the 20% many economists had guessed, it’s still one of the highest jobless numbers since the Great Depression, surpassed only by the rate in April. The numbers suggest that the job market has bottomed out as a large number of workers on furlough have returned to work. But the bottom is very deep — about 20 million jobs lost.
The key question for the future of the economy — and for Trump’s political standing — is how many of those 20 million get recalled to work and how quickly. Some share of the jobs lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic were temporary, and as businesses begin to reopen, those people will get back to work. Others will come back only slowly, if ever.
Trump is currently betting on a quick, sharp rebound of the economy that can be accomplished without additional large amounts of federal spending. He has a lot riding on that bet paying off.
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Police reform on the agenda
The House likely will take up and pass a bill later this month calling for nationwide police reforms, including a ban on at least certain forms of chokeholds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has asked the Congressional Black Caucus to take the lead in writing the legislation, which could come to the floor as early as next week.
Democrats will put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring the bill up in his chamber. They don’t truly expect him to do so, but they do hope to create a politically difficult situation for some Republican senators who are up for reelection this year.
Trump has largely ignored calls for police reforms, as Chris Megerian and Noah Bierman wrote. It’s not a topic in which he has ever showed interest.
So national legislation isn’t likely before the November election. If Democrats were to win, however — especially if they take a Senate majority — a national move on police reform likely would be a major agenda item.
Another venue for the debate is the Supreme Court, which over the past several decades has shielded police officers from excessive-force claims in a way that has drawn criticism from both conservatives and liberals, as David Savage wrote. The court has several cases before it that could become opportunities to change course if the justices want to.
Finally, as former President Obama noted in a speech this week, the federal government isn’t the only actor in this arena. He called on mayors to take action against systemic racism, as Janet Hook reported.
For an example of how the issue plays out in real life, see Erin Logan’s story about a Minneapolis woman’s run-in with the officer charged in the killing of George Floyd.
“I lived to complain,” she said.
Harris’ VP prospects
The focus on police brutality against African Americans has increased pressure on Biden to choose a black running mate, and Sen. Kamala Harris’ prospects have improved as a result, Evan Halper and Melanie Mason reported.
There’s some irony there: Harris’ career as a prosecutor proved to be a major stumbling block for her in the primaries, with activists objecting that she hadn’t been aggressive enough in pursuing police reform and holding officers to account. But Harris has worked hard since the primaries ended to improve relations with some of those activist groups, and the context of a general election has shifted the debate.
Still, she faces considerable competition, including Rep. Val Demmings of Florida, who also has a law enforcement background.
Some old issues never go away
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week to look at claims by conservatives that anti-Trump bias tainted the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Former Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein was the witness. As Chris Megerian reported, he conceded some mistakes in the investigation but largely defended it — and himself — against the central accusations.
“I do not believe the investigation was a hoax,” he testified.
With racism, civil unrest and police brutality dominating the news, is America living 1968 all over again, Mark Barabak asked. “Yes, and no,” he reports.
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