WASHINGTON — Inside the White House, the mood was bristling with tension. Hundreds of protesters were gathering outside the gates, shouting curses at President Donald Trump and in some cases throwing bricks and bottles. Nervous for his safety, Secret Service agents abruptly rushed the president to the underground bunker used in the past during terrorist attacks.
The scene Friday night, described by a person with firsthand knowledge, kicked off an uneasy weekend at the White House as demonstrations spread after the brutal death of a black man in police custody under a white officer’s knee. While in the end officials said they were never really in danger, Trump and his family have been rattled by protests near the Executive Mansion that turned violent for a third night Sunday.
After days in which the empathy he expressed for George Floyd, the man killed, was overshadowed by his combative threats to ramp up violence against looters and rioters, Trump spent Sunday out of sight, even as some of his campaign advisers were recommending that he deliver a nationally televised address before another night of possible violence. The building was even emptier than usual as some White House officials planning to work were told not to come in case of renewed unrest.
Thousands of protesters demonstrated peacefully near the White House during the day, but by nightfall, with hundreds still in the streets, the scene turned more volatile as crowds surged forward against lines of riot police with plastic shields as the two sides vied for control of Lafayette Square across from the White House. Protesters threw water bottles, set off fireworks and burned a pile of wood and at least one car.
One of the fires on H Street NW a block from the White House may have spread because soon afterward flames erupted in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the iconic “church of presidents” attended at least once by every chief executive going back to James Madison, but were soon doused by firefighters. Businesses far away from the White House boarded up to guard against vandalism, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser ordered an 11 p.m. curfew. The White House turned off at least some of its exterior lights.
Trump remained cloistered inside, periodically sending out Twitter messages like “LAW & ORDER!” until the evening, when he went quiet. While some aides urged him to keep off Twitter, Trump could not resist blasting out a string of messages through the day berating Democrats for not being tough enough and attributing the turmoil to radical leftists.
“Get tough Democrat Mayors and Governors,” he wrote. Referring to his presumptive Democratic presidential opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, he added: “These people are ANARCHISTS. Call in our National Guard NOW. The World is watching and laughing at you and Sleepy Joe. Is this what America wants? NO!!!”
The president said his administration “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” referring to the shorthand for “anti-fascist,” and scheduled a meeting with Attorney General William Barr for Monday morning. But antifa is a movement of activists who dress in black and have used tactics similar to those of anarchists, not an organization with a clear structure that can be penalized under law. Moreover, American law applies terrorist designations to foreign entities, not domestic groups.
By targeting antifa, however, Trump effectively paints all the protests with the brush of violent radicalism without addressing the underlying conditions that have driven many of the people who have taken to the streets. Demonstrations have broken out in at least 75 cities in recent days, with governors and mayors deploying the National Guard or imposing curfews on a scale not seen since the aftermath of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
While Trump has been a focus of anger, particularly among the crowds in Washington, aides repeatedly have tried to explain to him that the protests were not only about him, but about broader, systemic issues related to race, according to several people familiar with the discussions. Privately, Trump’s advisers complained about his tweets, acknowledging that they were pouring fuel on an already incendiary situation.
“Those are not constructive tweets, without any question,” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’m thankful that we can have the conversation. We don’t always agree on any of his tweets beforehand, but we have the ability to sit down and dialogue on how we move this nation forward.”
Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and supporter of Trump, said the president, with election looming in five months, is focused on catering to his core supporters rather than the nation at large. “Trump is far more divisive than past presidents,” Eberhart said. “His strength is stirring up his base, not calming the waters.”
But Trump’s absence rankled the Democrats he was criticizing.
“What I’d like to hear from the president is leadership,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “And I would like to hear a genuine care and concern for our communities and where we are with race relations in America.”
Some campaign advisers were pressing for a formal address to the nation as early as Sunday. But White House officials, recalling Trump’s error-filled Oval Office address in March about the spread of the coronavirus, cautioned that it was not necessary. Trump quizzed advisers throughout the day Sunday about whether he should give an Oval Office address.
Trump already tried to recalibrate by ripping up his speech at the Kennedy Space Center on Saturday after the launch of the new crewed SpaceX rocket and adding a long passage about Floyd. In the speech, Trump repeated his calls for law and order, but in more measured terms and leavened by expressions of sympathy for Floyd’s family, whom he had called to offer condolences.
Aides were disappointed that the remarks, delivered late Saturday afternoon as part of a speech otherwise celebrating the triumph of the space program, did not get wider attention, but they said they hoped they would break through. Several administration officials said Trump was genuinely horrified by the video of Floyd’s last minutes, mentioning it several times in private conversations over the last few days.
After Trump returned to the White House from Florida on Saturday, he found a White House again under siege. This time, security was ready. Washington police blocked off roads for blocks around the building, while hundreds of police officers and National Guard troops ringed the exterior perimeter wearing helmets and riot gear and holding up plastic shields.
The scene was similar Sunday night as well. Protesters shouted “no justice, no peace,” and “black lives matter” as well as chanting expletives at Trump. Washington icons like the Hay-Adams Hotel and the Oval Room restaurant, damaged from the night before, were boarded up.
Graffiti was spray-painted for blocks, including on the historic Decatur House a block from the White House: “Why do we have to keep telling you black lives matter?”