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President Trump Tests 'Law And Order' Rhetoric Amid Protests For Racial Justice

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

President Trump seems to be testing out a theory that Americans care more about law and order than racial justice. There was a Rose Garden speech with threats to send military forces into U.S. cities to clamp down on the violence and looting that followed the early protests over the death of George Floyd and a shocking use of federal police and National Guard troops against peaceful protesters of the White House done to clear the way for the president to take pictures at a church with a Bible. It was a startling moment in a presidency full of them that could be a defining one. Joining me now, as she does most Sundays, is NPR's Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with what the president said before his walk across the park.

LIASSON: That's right. It all started on Monday, where he started with a conference call with governors, telling them that they needed to, quote, "dominate" protesters, or else they would "look like a bunch of jerks." His defense secretary, Mark Esper, said they had to dominate the battle space. And then as you said, he went into the Rose Garden. And he said he would send thousands and thousands of heavily armed military personnel against the wishes of governors if the governors didn't crack down or dominate - the word he uses over and over again - against the protesters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did any of that happen? Did he send in military personnel and law enforcement officers to dominate protesters anywhere other than D.C.?

LIASSON: No, it didn't. And this gets to one of the questions about Donald Trump. Is he a dictator, or does he just sometimes play one on TV? But his - just the threat of using this force and the fact that a crowd of peaceful protesters was dispersed, so he could walk across Lafayette Square with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in battle combat fatigues and with the Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

That has caused a lot of pushback from former and current military officials. Esper said later he doesn't support the use of active duty troops to control protests. General Milley issued a statement reaffirming the oath that the armed forces take to defend the Constitution, which includes the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. And then the president's first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, who had resigned over a year ago, wrote a blistering critique of the president's leadership. He called Monday's action an abuse of executive authority. More retired generals piled on, including the president's former chief of staff, retired General John Kelly.

And then the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, ordered her work crews to paint black lives matter in enormous yellow letters on the street where all of this occurred. She renamed the area in front of the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. And as you just heard from Laura, protests in the city yesterday and elsewhere were large, and they were peaceful. So we're not sure who's dominating who here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what about the president's political calculations? I mean, clearly, there are some. And he's mentioning law and order a lot to appeal to a particular demographic.

LIASSON: Yes, his supporters think that this will work for him in the way it has worked for Republican politicians in the past. The theory is that suburban voters will worry that violent unrest will come into their neighborhoods. So far, though, there are no polls that show that the president has improved his standing with the public either in terms of how he's handled the pandemic or the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. His approval ratings are stuck pretty much where they've always been. There is at least one poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that shows his support has actually dropped over the course of the last two weeks.

And there are polls showing that the president's rival for the White House, Joe Biden, has been growing his lead in some pretty important battleground states. There is a sign that the Trump campaign is concerned about this because they have stepped up spending on ads in states that they should be taking for granted, like Ohio.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk briefly about Joe Biden. We only have a few seconds left. This was the week where he took his campaigning out of the basement.

LIASSON: He did. He's been struggling to get some media attention, but he did come out. He met with protesters. He gave a speech in Philadelphia that was actually covered live by several networks - that's kind of a new thing. But he has a hard time competing for media attention against the president. All presidents dominate the media. But Donald Trump is particularly adept at doing that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANE FEATURING PHON SONG, "DOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.