President Trump has shifted almost overnight from a candidate focused nonstop on economic recovery to promoting himself once again as the law-and-order president.
With his calling-out of more federal forces against rioters across the U.S. this week, Mr. Trump is counting on a suddenly more muscular law-and-order theme to help propel him to victory against a Democratic Party perennially criticized for being soft on crime.
The president said in a Twitter post Tuesday that New York City “was lost to the looters, thugs, Radical Left, and all others forms of Lowlife & Scum” in rioting Monday night and early Tuesday.
“The Governor refuses to accept my offer of a dominating National Guard. NYC was ripped to pieces,” Mr. Trump said.
Washington, he said, had “no problems” and “many arrests” after his administration called out more federal law enforcement officers.
Protests continued across the country in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd. The unarmed black man died in police custody after a white Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck on the street for more than eight minutes.
Demonstrations veered out of control overnight Monday in places such as Manhattan, where looters rampaged, and in St. Louis, where four police officers were shot.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio refused the president’s offer to send more National Guard troops Tuesday but moved up the city’s curfew from 11 p.m. to 8 p.m. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Trump ally, accused Mr. de Blasio of “holding back” police from confronting rioters.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the scenes of urban destruction playing out on television in the past week will have an impact with voters.
“Red state Americans are looking at stand down orders from lefty big city mayors on top of their push for extended [coronavirus] shutdown as further proof that the modern Democrat Party is radicalized and dangerous,” Mr. Schlapp tweeted.
The state of Minnesota filed a human rights complaint Tuesday against the Minneapolis Police Department in the death of Mr. Floyd. Investigators will review 10 years of the department’s actions to determine whether police engaged in systematic discrimination against minorities.
As of Tuesday, Minneapolis had not had rioters for two nights. At least six people across the nation have been killed in the unrest.
As Mr. Trump announced steps to mobilize military and civilian forces to stop looting and rioting, he declared Monday night, “I am your president of law and order.”
“Law and order is a powerful narrative for any presidential campaign, especially when the whole country is engulfed in riots,” said Republican strategist John Feehery. “And the fact that ‘big city Democrats’ have largely failed to contain these riots begs the question: How can we trust them to keep us safe?”
Vice President Mike Pence hammered home the theme in a round of TV interviews with stations in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“We’re going to have law and order on our streets, whether it be the streets of Pittsburgh, whether it be the streets of Indianapolis, New York City or our nation’s capital,” Mr. Pence told KDKA in Pittsburgh. “And the American people expect nothing less.”
Mr. Trump has made security a foundation of his agenda from the beginning, whether it’s carrying out a military campaign to wipe out the Islamic State or building a wall to stop illegal immigration. So a vow to stop riots, using U.S. troops if necessary, is not a change in his priorities.
But the fresh focus on law and order to confront looting, arson and attacks on police gives the president a more urgent campaign theme and a welcome change of topic after the monthslong devastation to public health and the economy wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge, Mr. Feehery said, is to ensure the appeal for safety applies to all segments of society.
“He needs to continue to make the case that law and order is good for every voter, no matter who they are,” he said.
In his announcement Monday night about beefing up the federal response to rioting, the president made the case that the violence is hurting distressed neighborhoods most. That point was largely lost in the media coverage of his visit to a historic church near the White House damaged by arsonists.
“The biggest victims of the rioting are peace-loving citizens in our poorest communities, and as their president, I will fight to keep them safe,” Mr. Trump said. “I will fight to protect you.”
Democrats said the president is merely trying to project a tough-guy image for campaign purposes and isn’t interested in reforming police practices or rebuilding devastated communities.
“President Trump’s repeated threats to ‘dominate’ and unleash the ‘unlimited power of our military’ against American citizens are irresponsible and destabilizing,” said Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat. “President Trump’s words and actions run counter to our democratic values and undermine the work of responsible community leaders and law enforcement officials who are trying to uphold everyone’s rights and protect public safety. The job of bringing calm will take law enforcement and the community working together. It will not come from recklessly invoking the Insurrection Act.”
Mr. Trump even evoked the ghost of Richard Nixon, another law-and-order candidate who promised to quell riots, with a simple two-word tweet: “Silent Majority!”
Nixon popularized the term in 1969 to describe Americans who didn’t support street protests against the Vietnam War and whose views weren’t represented in the liberal media. The “silent majority” of voters, Nixon believed, carried him to victory twice.
In the late 1960s, Democrats got the blame for rioting and violent protests over the war. Demonstrations and violence in the past week are focusing similar accusations on Democratic leaders and presumptive presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson said Mr. Biden “has obviously made the crass political calculation that unrest in America is a benefit to his candidacy.” She pointed to a Reuters report saying that more than a dozen Biden campaign staffers contributed to a bail fund to help arrested protesters in Minnesota get out of jail.
“Joe Biden’s campaign made it clear that they stand with the rioters, the people burning businesses in minority communities and causing mayhem, by donating to post bail for those arrested,” she said.
Mr. Biden made his first campaign trip since the coronavirus shutdown on Tuesday to give a speech in Philadelphia, a city hit hard by violent protests. He said the demonstrations have been a “wake-up call” for the nation and criticized Mr. Trump’s response as ineffective and insincere.
“I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate,” Mr. Biden said. “I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”
Democrats and some Republicans criticized the decision to clear protesters near the White House on Monday night so Mr. Trump could walk across Lafayette Park to visit the fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“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,” said Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican.
Park Police said late Tuesday that they used smoke canisters and “pepper balls,” not tear gas, after some protesters threw bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquid at law enforcement officers.
Mr. Feehery said the president’s walk to the church will prove to be powerful campaign imagery.
“I think his march to St. John’s will make a great campaign commercial in the fall,” he said. “It will help him to turn out his base.