Donald Trump has urged US governors and law enforcement officials to take a more forceful approach in responding to protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African American man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against his neck for several minutes.
The weekend saw the most widespread civil unrest in the US since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
In a group call on Monday morning of which the Guardian obtained a recording, the president, accompanied by attorney general Bill Barr and secretary of defense Mark Esper, repeatedly urged participants to act more forcefully.
“If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you,” Trump said. “In Washington we’re going to do something people haven’t seen before.”
The call came amid alarm across the US, as some protests have descended into rioting and looting. In many states, governors have activated national guard units.
Nonetheless, the president repeatedly warned governors against being “overridden” and argued that if they did not dominate protesters, “you’re wasting your time, they are gonna run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”
Trump repeatedly blasted New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, cities with Democratic mayors, in states with Democratic governors.
“New York is going to have to toughen up,” Trump said. “And we’ll send you national guard if you want. What’s going on in New York is terrible, it’s terrible.
“Philadelphia, you gotta toughen up … You’ve got a big national guard out there that’s ready to come out and fight like hell.”
But Trump also repeatedly praised Minnesota governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, who he said “knocked [protesters] out so fast it was like bowling pins”. He also said Phil Murphy, another Democrat, “did a very good job in New Jersey.”
The president described Minnesota as “our experiment” in how to handle the protests.
“You had the first part which was weak and pathetic,” he said, “and you had the second part which was domination.”
Trump also urged that states should enact laws against flag burning – a first amendment right.
Trump repeatedly said the protesters were from the “radical left” and likened the protests to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, speaking favourably of how those protests were forcibly put down.
The response was mixed. Maine governor Janet Mills asked for Trump and his team to share intelligence on “professional instigators” from out of state, but also expressed concern about an upcoming visit by Trump.
West Virginia governor Jim Justice, a Republican, said: “You come to West Virginia. We’re not going to have a problem here.”
“Well, now that sounds a lot different than the governor of Maine,” Trump said. “I think she talked me into it. She doesn’t know me very well.”
Illinois governor JB Pritzker said he was “extraordinarily concerned” by Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Floyd’s death, which he said was “making it worse”.
Trump shot back that he didn’t like the Democrat’s “rhetoric either” and said he had repeatedly addressed his horror over Floyd’s death.
Others supported Trump. Arizona governor Doug Ducey said “the more aggressive approach does work”. Maryland governor Larry Hogan said “I agree in peace through strength.”
Trump’s theme was crush, or be crushed.
“They come armed with bricks,” he said. “They come armed with bricks and rocks.”
Former vice-president Joe Biden, the de facto Democratic presidential nominee, in contrast sought advice from mayors including Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot and Melvin Carter of St Paul, Minneapolis’s “twin city”, who are all African American, on balancing “keeping people safe” while “acknowledging the incredible pain and anger that is the root of these protests”.
Biden said on Monday: “People are angry. I’m angry. And the fact is we need that anger, we need that to tell us to move forward, it helps us push through this pain to reach the other side, to hopefully greater progress, equality and inclusion and opportunity in our country.”
Across the country, protests have been mostly peaceful by day but some have turned violent at night, buildings set ablaze, shops looted, police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. At least 4,400 arrests have been made, according to the Associated Press.
The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, announced that there would be a curfew mandated for New York City Monday night 11pm until 5am Tuesday, and a doubling of policing.
A man was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, after police and national guardsmen “returned fire” while dispersing a crowd. Democratic governor Andy Beshear said the incident would be investigated. In Indianapolis, two were reported dead, adding to deaths in Detroit and Minneapolis.
Trump is facing widespread criticism for tweets starkly demanding “law and order”, threatening to unleash “vicious dogs” and blaming fringe leftwing groups for inciting violence.
The president, also grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, did not appear in public on Sunday and was not scheduled to do so on Monday. There have been protests outside the White House for three days in a row. On Friday, Trump, his wife, Melania, and their son Barron were rushed to a bunker previously used during terrorist attacks.
On Sunday, after a peaceful daytime protest, police and national guardsmen faced supporters as an 11pm curfew approached, and then advanced firing teargas. Lights illuminating the White House were turned off, which typically only occurs when a president dies.
Minneapolis had a largely quiet night after the police vigorously enforced an 8pm curfew, shutting all main highways through the city. A lot of side streets were shut off by makeshift barricades erected by residents seeking to protect their homes. The police blocked junctions.
Only a small number of people appeared to defy the curfew, including a group of several hundred who maintained a vigil at the place where Floyd was held for nearly nine minutes with police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck. The street is now a memorial filled with flowers.
On Monday the family of George Floyd, 46, released the results of a private autopsy they arranged, which concluded that Floyd died by homicide caused by “asphyxiation by sustained force”. They called for the third-degree murder charge against former officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck, to be upgraded to a first-degree charge and for the three other officers involved to be arrested for “the part they played” in the man’s death.
Last week preliminary results of the official autopsy, released by the county medical examiner, had found that Floyd’s died because of the “combined effects of Mr. Floyd’s being restrained by police, underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system”.
Elsewhere, though, violence returned. In Birmingham, Alabama, a Confederate statute was toppled. Protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails in Philadelphia and were hit with tear gas in Austin, Texas. Seven Boston police officers were hospitalised.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, offered advice to the protesters.
“If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals,” he wrote in a Medium post.