By Ashley Parker, Robert Klemko and Mark Guarino
September 1, 2020 at 6:46 p.m. CDT
President Trump on Tuesday inserted himself into a city already roiled by the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, using a trip to Kenosha, Wis., to highlight his hard-edge law-and-order message and press what he and his campaign advisers view as a political advantage against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Unwelcome by local officials — including the city’s Democratic mayor and the state’s Democratic governor — but hailed by others, Trump and an entourage that included Attorney General William P. Barr descended on the city south of Milwaukee for a campaign-style journey that included a visit to businesses and properties destroyed in rioting and to meet with law enforcement officials.
At an event focused on community safety near the end of his visit, Trump said Kenosha had “been ravaged by anti-police and anti-American riots” and vowed to stand firmly with law enforcement.
“To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence,” Trump said. “Reckless, far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.”
Trump — who said beforehand that the trip might “increase enthusiasm” rather than tensions — did not meet with the family of 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back seven times by a White police officer in Kenosha on Aug. 23.
Asked whether he had anything he would like to say to Trump, Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, referred to the president as “the orange man” and said he wished that Black people had the same ability to travel the country as they please as Trump does.
“All I ask is that he keep his disrespect, his foul language far away from our family,” Justin Blake said at a block party Tuesday organized by the Blake family and activists. “We need a president that’s going to unite and take us in a different direction. We want the same right he’s got, and we want to be able to get our children home safely. They should be able to go anywhere they want in this nation and get home safely, and not get shot seven times.”
Trump and his team calculate that amid the racial justice protests cleaving the nation after the death of George Floyd — an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police in late May — he can leverage the unrest, spinning the chaos into a political advantage over Biden and casting himself as the stronger leader to quell the tensions.
He has repeatedly criticized Biden as not doing enough to condemn antifa — the loose network of anti-fascist views associated with some on the far left — and tried to tie the former vice president to local officials in Democratic states and cities that have experienced protests and violence.
Biden, who did not directly address Trump’s visit to Kenosha, said in an interview with WTVD-TV in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., that he condemned protest violence and accused Trump of trying to shirk responsibility. “Everyone talks about this as if I’m already president,” Biden said. “The fact is, this is Donald Trump’s America. Donald Trump has done nothing more than pour gasoline on the fire. I have condemned the violence from the very beginning.”
Trump’s trip to Wisconsin — a presidential battleground that he flipped for a Republican win in his 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton — was as much political as presidential, offering a glimpse of Trump’s strategy for defeating Biden and of his role as the incendiary leader of a divided nation.
During his visit, Trump said he doesn’t believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement and refused to engage on whether systemic racism is a broader issue in the country.
“I don’t believe that,” he said when asked whether police violence against African Americans is systemic. “I think the police do an incredible job. And I think you do have some bad apples. I think you’d agree every once in a while you’ll see something.”
He continued: “They call it choking and it happens.”
Asked whether he believed systemic racism was a problem in America more broadly, he accused the reporter of quizzing him on “the opposite subject” of his interest.
“We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Portland and here and other places — it’s tremendous violence,” Trump said, referring to the Oregon city that has been struggling with persistent clashes between protesters. “The fact is that we’ve seen tremendous violence, and we will put it out very, very quickly if given the chance. And that’s what this is all about.”
Pressed further on the demands of peaceful protesters for “structural change,” and with a reminder that Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times, Trump said there are people not protesting who also want change.
“They want the law and order,” Trump said. “That’s the change they want.”
The president announced that his administration plans to provide $1 million in emergency funds for Kenosha law enforcement, $4 million to support local small businesses that were destroyed in the riots and fires, and over $42 million to buttress public safety statewide. The money will largely come from various Justice Department funds, as well as the federal Economic Development Administration’s covid-19 relief fund.
During the law enforcement roundtable, Barr criticized the riots and looting in Kenosha that followed the shooting of Blake, calling them “simply not a legitimate response to a police shooting” and “violence for violence sake.”
“Once again, we saw the hijacking of a protest by a hardcore group of radicals who were carrying out, planning, a coordinated violent attack on law enforcement, on public property, and on private property,” Barr said. “And that can’t be tolerated.”
Those involved in violence in Wisconsin included a Trump supporter — 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who attended the protests carrying a military-style rifle and has been charged with killing two of the protesters.
On Monday, the president defended Rittenhouse’s actions as self-defense. He had also defended this own supporters in Portland, who had fired paint balls and pepper spray at protesters during demonstrations there, calling paint balls “a defensive mechanism” and “not bullets.”
Just before Air Force One was to touch down in Waukegan, Ill., on Trump’s path to Kenosha, Jacob Blake’s uncle addressed a group of more than 75 members of the media who gathered on the block where his nephew was shot by Officer Rusten Sheskey of the Kenosha police.
The Blake family and local activists organized a block party Tuesday, which included volunteer licensed therapists who visited with residents affected by last week’s shooting and was intended as counterprogramming for Trump’s visit.
Kenosha police have not released requested documents detailing any disciplinary measures or citizen complaints accrued in Sheskey’s seven years in the department. The president and his allies, in tweets and television appearances, have suggested culpability on the part of Blake, pointing to a knife police recovered from his vehicle and reports that police had an arrest warrant for Blake on charges of rape and domestic violence.
“We’re not going to allow anybody to smudge my nephew’s name,” Justin Blake said at the block party. “He’s like any young Black man today; he’s had challenges, he’s dealt with them. He’s a great father of five and nobody would like their family member to be in the position we’re at right now.”
He said that “Little Jake is everybody’s little Jake,” and said the shooting was not an isolated incident. “The conversations that African American families have to have with their loved ones before they walk out the door tells you that it’s not just a rogue cop, but it’s systemic racism we’re talking about,” he said.
In Uptown — the Kenosha neighborhood that suffered most of the looting and fires — the smell of burned cinders still hung the air as several dozen residents lined up awaiting the president’s visit.
Jerry and Judy Eckert said they viewed Trump as providing a new direction for their city. “We need him,” said Jerry Eckert, 77. “I hope other people get wise that he cares.”
But many who stood among the ruins said they were curious to see a sitting president but personally wished he had stayed home, explaining they were still fatigued from the days of protests, looting, fires, and national media attention.
Dan Heck, 33, who said he plans to vote for Trump, nonetheless called the visit “bad timing.”
“I’m concerned it will cause more riots, and I don’t want that,” he said.
Tony Farhan, 38, sifted through the rubble of a Boost Mobile store that he operated for 10 years, worrying about the $20,000 he said he’ll need to reopen in a new location. While Farhan said “it’s awesome” that Trump is bringing more attention to Kenosha, he said he still doesn’t plan to vote for him or Biden.
“It’s all corrupt to the core,” he said, dismissing politics generally.
Klemko and Guarino reported from Kenosha.