Former President George W. Bush, in addressing George Floyd’s death for the first time publicly this week, called on the nation to end “systemic racism.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged days earlier that millions of people in the U.S. do not view Floyd’s death — and the recent deaths of two other black people, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky — as “isolated incidents.”
For many Americans, these killings are “the latest disturbing chapters in our long, unfinished American struggle to ensure that equal justice under law is not conditional on the color of one’s skin,” McConnell, the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, said in a statement.
The comments from two of the most powerful Republican leaders in recent years followed other Republicans who have come forward since Floyd’s death to denounce structural inequality and racism in American life — echoing the sentiments expressed by Democrats like former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden on an issue that has so often divided the two parties in the past.
The one voice noticeably absent from the conversation? President Donald Trump.
Trump’s first tweets about Floyd — a black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes — came two days after his death. The messages on Twitter, as well as the rest of the president’s public remarks about Floyd’s death and the protests, are telling of his approach to tackling the issue of race.
In the initial tweets, Trump called Floyd’s death “very sad and tragic,” and said he had asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate the incident. Trump also expressed his condolences. “My heart goes out to George’s family and friends. Justice will be served!” Trump tweeted.
Three days later, on May 30, Trump made his first extensive live remarks on Floyd, at the start of a speech at the Kennedy Space Center.
Trump said that he understood “the pain that people are feeling,” called on the country to work together to “create a future of greater dignity and promise for all of our people,” and said that his administration was working “toward a more just society.”
The president did not utter the word “racism” or make any direct mention of systemic racial inequality.
Trump omitted any reference to those issues again two days later in a Rose Garden speech — to date his highest-profile address on the killing of Floyd and the protests that have erupted in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C.
Trump began the speech by saying that “all Americans are rightly sickened and revolted by the brutal death of George Floyd,” adding that “justice will be served.”
After that, Trump devoted the remainder of the address to criticizing the protesters and state and local officials who he said “failed” to stop them.
The president called the protesters “professional anarchists, violent mobs, or arsonists, looters, criminals, rider rioters, antifa and others.” Trump went on to say that the destruction of property and violence at the protests were an “offense to humanity and a crime against God.”
Trump concluded the speech by vowing to end the protests with an overwhelming show of force, memorably calling on the National Guard to “dominate the streets.”
With the speech over, Trump left the White House and walked to the nearby St. John’s Church, where he was photographed holding a Bible outside the boarded-up entrance. The PBS NewsHour and other news outlets reported that law enforcement used pepper spray and tear gas to clear the protesters outside the White House to make way for Trump’s walk, which was roundly criticized by Democrats and Republicans as a misguided photo-op.
Thus far, Trump’s public remarks about the protests fit into a pattern of resisting talking directly about racism. It’s a topic Trump has largely avoided during his presidency, though he has on occasion defended himself when others accuse him of making racist remarks.
“The president is always cognizant of how certain phrases are going to be interpreted by his hardcore base,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University. “He’s never going to talk about systematic racism in that way because he knows that’s something his base is not interested in and doesn’t want to hear.”
Trump’s response differs from past presidents who tried to acknowledge the country’s history of racial discrimination during moments of unrest — even if their rhetoric and timing sometimes came under criticism.
Bill Clinton did not focus much attention on the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999. But after the officers who killed Diallo were acquitted, Clinton said race played a role in the shooting. Bush was criticized for his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but after several days Bush did eventually visit New Orleans to show his support for the city, Neal noted.
Presidents have a responsibility to “be able to recognize the pain and the trauma and even the victories of everyone in the nation,” Neal said. “Yes, it’s empty gestures in some cases, it’s just symbolism in some cases, but you at least expect national leaders to be able to speak to that.”
Trump did use the term “systemic racism” at least once in the past week, but it came in the context of attacking Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, one day after the former vice president delivered a speech calling on the country to address the issue.
“Now he’s talking about systemic racism and the police department. Why wouldn’t he have done something about it” as a senator and vice president, Trump said of Biden in an interview with the conservative news site Newsmax.
Since the protests started, Trump has instead focused most of his comments — and his harshest language — on criticizing the people protesting while generally praising law enforcement.
The White House did not respond to an email request for comment.
During a Rose Garden event Friday where Trump touted the latest jobs report, he was asked by a PBS NewsHour reporter if he had a plan to address systemic racism. Trump appeared to pivot back to his message on the economy.
“What’s happened to our country and what you now see that’s been happening is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African American community, for the Asian American, for the Hispanic American community, for women, for everything, because our county is so strong,” Trump said, adding, “and that’s what my plan is. We’re going to have the strongest economy in the world.”
Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the protests has been widely criticized — by members of both major parties and protesters alike. According to a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll released Friday, 67 percent of adults believe Trump’s response has increased tensions, instead of decreasing them.
A majority of both white and non-white Americans were in agreement: 63 percent of white people said they thought Trump was increasing tensions, compared to 73 percent of non-white people who felt the same way.
“The meaning of [systemic racism] is not completely clear to everyone and the president is certainly not going to want to suggest that the country is racist or irredeemably racist, and that is maybe what some people would hear if he uses the language of systemic racism,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for the conservative National Review magazine.
But Trump “has also given signs of thinking that there are important parts of his coalition that are racist. That is one way at least of understanding the episodes where he has been reluctant to denounce racists and white supremacists,” Ponnuru said.
In recent days, some Republicans have adopted Trump’s rhetoric to criticize the protests taking place across the country. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Republican, published an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that Trump should deploy the military to stop the protests.
“Nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes,” Cotton wrote.
Still, other Republicans like Bush, McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California have diverged in tone from the president, acknowledging that Floyd’s death is indicative of a broader problem. “This is about more than George Floyd. Now is the time to come together and solve deep-seated problems in our communities,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter last week.
The same day that Trump spoke at the Kennedy Space Center, Vice President Mike Pence put out a tweet using the word the president has avoided in speaking about Floyd’s death for more than a week.
Pence wrote, “Our prayers are with the family of George Floyd and our prayers are also with the family of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. We have no tolerance for racism in America. We have no tolerance for violence inspired by racism. And, as President Trump said, justice will be served.”
Yamiche Alcindor and Bella Isaacs contributed reporting.