It’s been two weeks since George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, sparking demonstrations calling for widespread policing reform across the country. But Trump has yet to meet with black advocates calling for those changes or travel to Minneapolis to speak with the community reeling in the wake of Floyd’s death.
A visit to the site of a national tragedy is something a US president is often called to do — listening to Americans impacted by an event that has captured the country’s attention and calling for national unity.
Trump has expressed his sympathies from within the heavily fortified White House gates, and invoked Floyd’s name during an event focused on American jobs. He’s posed for a photo at a church damaged by looters after peaceful demonstrators were cleared from the area with anti-riot deterrents, such as pepper balls. And he’s held a roundtable with representatives of national law enforcement organizations, a Republican sheriff and two Republican attorneys general, to hear their side of the issue.
But Trump’s efforts to address the demonstrations have, in many ways, garnered criticism and sown division.
Vice President Mike Pence has held a series of listening sessions with members of the African American community.
So far, these carefully curated events have not included Floyd’s family, Black Lives Matter organizers or national civil rights activists. Instead, they’ve been held in and around Washington, and the guests were black conservatives, spiritual leaders and Washington-area community leaders. One guest, Candace Owens, has said Floyd was “an example of a violent criminal his entire life, up until the very last moment,” that he shouldn’t be held up as a martyr and that he “was not a good person.”
Trump has also said he’s spoken to Floyd’s family over the phone. But Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said their conversation was “brief” and one-sided.
“He didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak,” Floyd said. “It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’ “
The White House’s belated solution to call for national unity may come in the form of a presidential address this week.
A senior administration official said an address on issues related to race and national unity is under serious consideration. And Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson — the only black member of Trump’s Cabinet — hinted in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that we’re “going to be hearing from the President this week on this topic in some detail.”
But so far, Trump has had little direct exposure to members of the American public who disagree with his politics since taking office.
From time to time, Trump has met with Democratic lawmakers, seen a protester escorted out of a rally, or driven past someone carrying a protest sign from the insulation of his motorcade. And Pence, in a rare, public, direct interaction with someone who disagreed with his principles, was once confronted by a Medicaid and Medicare expansion advocate while dropping into an Iowa diner for a reelection campaign stop.
By and large, though, the White House does not put the President in a position to be challenged by everyday Americans who oppose his political views. In fact, it’s quite rare for a modern American president to be publicly confronted by everyday Americans dissenting from their administrations’ policies. Every meeting, roundtable and event is carefully curated with guests vetted by White House staff.
But there is precedent for US presidents to meet with activists and civil rights leaders, or, in at least one case, to visit the sites of mass protests rooted in racial tensions.
President John F. Kennedy met with civil rights leaders the same day Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. President George H.W. Bush was criticized for waiting five days to visit Los Angeles in the wake of the LA riots following the acquittal of police officers involved in brutally beating Rodney King. And President Richard Nixon met with anti-Vietnam War protesters before dawn at the Lincoln Memorial five days after the incident at Kent State University, when Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four students protesting the war’s expansion into Cambodia.
Some of Trump’s previous visits to American communities nursing the wounds of national tragedy have been met by criticism and division.
During a visit to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, Trump was criticized for casually tossing around rolls of paper towels at a supply center while visiting well-fortified neighborhoods on the island and celebrating his administration’s response to the hurricane season.
Trump also faced political blowback for his visits to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, in the wake of mass shootings in their communities. Some politicians in those cities discouraged the President’s visit and some El Paso shooting victims said they didn’t want to meet with the President.
Trump also falsely accused Ohio Democrats Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley of “totally misrepresenting” his visit to an Ohio hospital to meet with the Dayton victims. But neither Brown nor Whaley had suggested his visit to the hospital got a poor reception.