Donald Trump’s week to be remembered as his undoing or his revival
In five days, Trump either solidified perceptions that he’s an authoritarian leader with little capacity to unify a broken nation -- or re-established himself as an able shepherd of the US economy, regardless of how voters otherwise feel about him.
Donald Trump endured one of the grimmest weeks of his presidency, as days of protests in U.S. cities emerged as the biggest test yet of his ability to lead in a crisis and put new strains on his argument for a second term.
Yet, for Trump it was also a week that ended on a high note. An unexpected surge in May hiring, despite the coronavirus pandemic, and an easing of tensions on American streets allowed him to claim Friday, in an extemporaneous Rose Garden speech, that “it’s the greatest comeback in American history.”
That optimism underscored why the first week of June will likely be remembered as an inflection point in Trump’s presidency one way or another, seared into the minds and votes of an ailing American population. In five days, Trump either solidified perceptions that he’s an authoritarian leader with little capacity to unify a broken nation -- or re-established himself as an able shepherd of the U.S. economy, regardless of how voters otherwise feel about him.
For many voters, one good jobs report can’t erase the first half of a year that saw Trump’s approval rating plunge to nearly its lowest point ever after his widely panned handling of the coronavirus outbreak. His hostile attitude toward nationwide protests over police brutality has alienated many Americans, and even some Republicans and military leaders.
Mattis to Murkowski
Trump’s former defense secretary, James Mattis, issued a scathing criticism of the president on Wednesday that was subsequently endorsed by Trump’s former chief of staff and another retired general, John Kelly, and by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski.
In the last month, the political battlefield has dramatically shifted under Trump’s feet, as polling showed his presumptive re-election opponent Joe Biden taking leads or coming within striking distance in states the president’s team didn’t expect to be competitive.
The former vice president holds an eight-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, and is leading by three points or more in the three Rust Belt states that gave Trump the White House -- Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- and by smaller margins in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and North Carolina.
Bad to Worse
One person familiar with the Trump campaign’s thinking said things had gone from bad to worse with the protests over George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody, and described alarm that the president’s previously impenetrable base of support appeared to be eroding.
The person, who asked not to be identified discussing non-public information, described internal polling that shows increasing disapproval of the president and key states like Arizona slipping from Trump’s reach in the election.
And while Friday’s jobs report shocked economists by showing a 2.5 million gain in employment, in contrast with forecasts of 7.5 million more lost jobs, there were warning signs in the data.
Unemployment for African Americans, a demographic Trump has loudly courted, ticked up to 16.8%. And the Labor Department warned that the data contained an important inaccuracy. Many people surveyed who were on furloughs incorrectly reported their job status, artificially improving the unemployment rate.
Biden meanwhile tried to seize on Trump’s difficulties. He delivered a well received speech on race relations in Philadelphia on Tuesday and brought in $4 million from just 25 wealthy donors in a virtual fundraiser on Thursday. He criticized Trump on Friday for “basically hanging a ‘mission accomplished’ banner when there is so much work to be done” during the president’s remarks on the jobs report.
Despite a full schedule on Friday that saw him travel to Maine after his remarks on the economy, Trump issued 200 tweets, an all-time record for a single day, according to factba.se, a site that compiles his public remarks.
The posts included items about the jobs report and about favorite targets including the Russian investigation, Biden and former President Barack Obama, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, whom he termed “grossly incompetent,” and former FBI attorney Lisa Page. Trump retweeted GOP lawmakers critizing Democrats over this week’s massive protests, slammed Twitter for taking down a campaign video over a copyright dispute, and promoted at least two books.
Trump’s troubles began on Monday morning when he told the nation’s governors in a conference call that “most of you are weak” and warned they’d look like “jerks” if they didn’t “dominate” people protesting Floyd’s death.
Recordings of the call were promptly leaked to news organizations.
Whisked to Bunker
That evening, after criticism that he hadn’t addressed the nation on the unrest and reports the Secret Service had whisked him to a bunker to protect him from demonstrations in Washington, Trump decided to make impromptu remarks to reporters.
As he threatened in the Rose Garden to use “thousands and thousands” of troops and law enforcement officers to quash violence and looting, reporters could hear authorities using munitions to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
Trump then gathered a coterie of all-white staff and walked across the emptied park to St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been damaged by arson the night before, where he posed for photos holding up a Bible in one hand.
“Pretty great,” he told reporters.
The moment would define his week. Episcopal and Catholic leaders, former top military brass and even some Republicans condemned the violent dispersal of protesters before his walk to the church, and pictures of demonstrators fleeing police bearing plastic shields amid clouds of riot-control agents would become the indelible image from the event, instead of Trump’s photo op at the church.
A night of bedlam in the streets of Washington, with low-flying military helicopters used to disperse protesters and drones hovering in the skies, deepened anxiety and outrage. By Tuesday afternoon, the government had begun transporting federal prison guards from out of state to reinforce the Secret Service and defend an expanding perimeter around the White House from protesters.
Two Republican senators -- Tim Scott of South Carolina and Ben Sasse of Nebraska -- said they did not support the tactics used by federal authorities to disperse the Lafayette Square protesters. A presidential trip to the Catholic shrine to Saint John Paul II -- ostensibly to promote a religious freedom executive order -- only brought more embarrassment for the White House.
The Catholic archbishop of Washington said it was “reprehensible” for the shrine to host the president after the Lafayette Square incident, while demonstrators with raised middle fingers and protest signs lined the motorcade route through the city.
The political headwinds intensified for Trump on Wednesday, when Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon he did not believe active-duty military troops should be used to address domestic turmoil. The remarks prompted consternation within the White House, and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered only that “as of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper” when asked if Trump retained confidence in his Pentagon chief.
That afternoon came a broadside: Mattis, who had largely remained quiet since resigning from the administration in December 2018 in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, released a statement condemning Trump’s “bizarre photo op” at the church and the military leadership that enabled it.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people -- does not even pretend to try,” Mattis said.
Trump responded on Twitter, blasting his former Pentagon chief as “the world’s most overrated General” and saying he was happy to have fired him.
On Friday, Kelly piled on. The former chief of staff sided with Mattis in a virtual event with Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who briefly served as Trump’s communications director but has since turned on him.
“We need to look harder at who we elect,” said Kelly, who left the White House in January 2019. “We should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?”
In Maine on Friday, after touring a plant making swabs for coronavirus tests, Trump had a reply: he’s bringing back jobs. He noted that the 2.5 million jobs added in May was the most ever, overlooking that the 20.5 million lost in April was also a record.
“The only thing that can screw it up,” he said, “is if you get the wrong president.”