I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Donald Trump, the would-be authoritarian, is not going to send out the troops to police America’s streets. Not yet, anyway.
Which is not to say that Trump’s little foray into obscure early 19th-century law to justify the use of the U.S. Army against its own people isn’t scary as hell. Trump went all in, using desperate bully-boy tactics, in which he flirted with, let’s be honest, something very like martial law.
Is he worried that given our current version of hell — a still-raging pandemic, an economy in tatters and now countrywide protests of the police killing of George Floyd — there might be murmurs coming even from Trump’s loyalist base?
As the narcissist-in-chief shows himself from behind the curtain, he gives a glimpse of how far he might go from here to Election Day and, if he loses, well beyond. As Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics until he quit in 2017, put it (this is a paraphrase): Those in the Army should review their duties under their oath of the Constitution. They may have to make a choice between their oath and their commander in chief.
Imagine Trump sending troops to Colorado — where the late-night violence seemed to have calmed significantly Monday night — against the wishes of the governor (who has been basically out of sight since the demonstrations began and strangely quiet on the injustice that spawned the protests) and the mayor. There would be blood.
Trump has survived every kind of folly, his shooting-on-5th-Avenue metaphor having held up amazingly well. But now imagine a real-life shooting from troops on 6th Avenue in Denver. Not even Trump’s reelection campaign could survive that.
As Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis released in a statement Monday night, saying in part, “The President’s threat to deploy federal troops is counterproductive and will only stoke the potential for worse violence and destruction. Denver is not Little Rock in 1957, and Donald Trump is not President Eisenhower.”
And Polis, for that matter, hasn’t exactly been Barack Obama. For the first time, at his Tuesday press briefing, Polis spoke at length about George Floyd and the protests, focusing on the social-justice issues and the need for reform everywhere, including in Colorado. He says he’s listening to ideas on how to address the problem. He also said that listening was the reason he had, uh, waited so long to speak. When asked why he didn’t speak up on the phone call when Trump called governors jerks, Polis said he wanted instead to talk about coronavirus. But he did say Tuesday that it would be a terrible mistake, and clearly counterproductive, for Trump to send troops to Colorado.
But back to Trump. As theater, or as in Trump’s case, reality-show TV, Trump’s staged moment of military force was, well, an utter failure.
Either you’ve watched or you’ve seen the clips. Trump’s working day begins in a conference call with governors in which he calls them “weak” and “fools.” Sadly, most of the governors showed themself to be no braver than the Republican U.S. Senate and just took the insults. Few, with the notable exception of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, spoke up against him.
The call was eventually followed that evening by Trump’s Rose Garden speech vowing to militarize the situation if governors and mayors aren’t up to the job to “dominate” the protesters, saying he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
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The speech began as the Trump Follies were finally put in place. As Trump disingenuously called himself an ally of peaceful protest, heavily armed police, including military police, were charging peaceful protesters across from the White House, employing tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets. And this show of force was done, as we saw, in service of a photo op, as Trump walked across the street to St. John’s Church, the site of a basement fire the night before.
It had to be the worst presidential photo op since at least George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished,” and probably even worse than that. We saw Trump standing in front of the church — naturally he didn’t go in — awkwarding holding up a Bible as a prop — which, naturally, he did not cite — and had by Tuesday morning made a campaign-like video out of it all, with no mention, of course, of the protesters.
Like many, I had wondered how Trump could do his duty and make a prime-time speech to help heal a hurting nation. He couldn’t, of course. What could he possibly say? Empathy, even when reading from a Teleprompter, simply does not fall within his narrow skill set. As Joe Biden would say of Trump in a Tuesday morning speech in Philadelphia, “He thinks division helps him.”
And so, after making his martial law threat, Trump strolled to St. John’s Church, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff beside him, Ivanka Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr trailing. And as one senior White House official told Axios, “I’ve never been more ashamed. I’m really honestly disgusted. I’m sick to my stomach. And they (the White House staff) are all celebrating it. They’re very very proud of themselves.”
The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, was angry. Or as she put it, “outraged,” that Trump, without notice, exploited the church and its message — a church that has been attended by presidents since James Madison. On Tuesday, when Trump visited a shrine to Pope John Paul II, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory called it “baffling and reprehensible.”
There’s no argument whether Trump has the authority to use troops in Washington, D.C., which, of course, is not a state. And so a reporter would describe a Black Hawk helicopter, with U.S. Army markings, buzzing a crowd of protesters, in which the chopper hit some tree branches that nearly fell on a few nearby protesters. Protesters down?
There are, of course, legal arguments about whether Trump can send troops to the states. It has been done before. Most Republican senators, meanwhile, have been basically trying to avoid the question.
Sen. Tim Scott, the GOPs most prominent black official, did tell Politico, “If your question is, ‘Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo op,’ the answer is no.” Earlier Monday, before the president’s speech but after his call with governors, Cory Gardner told CPR that, unlike George Floyd, he knew he would still be alive if he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill and that something must be done about that. He didn’t say what. And he also didn’t have anything to say about Trump’s comments to governors. He said — and you can believe this if you like— he hadn’t heard them.
Meanwhile, conservative icon George Will, dependably Republican until he quit the party in protest of Trump, wrote this: “Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration…Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.” Somewhere I can hear Sen. Michael Bennet applauding.
It’s now June, five months from Election Day, too early, in any case, to start talking about breaking points. This is Donald Trump, after all, who doesn’t recognize breaking points. And the more desperate he becomes, the more likely it is that he will challenge ever more democratic norms. If that is, in fact, the tear-gassed, Bible-toting path to victory, we may need much more than prayer.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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