U.S. President Donald Trump dove into the latest eruption in the nation's reckoning over racial injustice on Tuesday, visiting the "destruction" left by rioters in Kenosha, Wis., and declaring it was enabled by Democratic leaders.
Soon after arriving in the city, a visit made over the objections of state and local leaders, Trump toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire. He spoke to the owners of a century-old furniture store that had been destroyed and blasted the Democrats in charge of Kenosha and Wisconsin.
"They just don't want us to come in and then destruction is done," said Trump, who has offered to send in federal enforcement. "These governors don't want to call and the mayors don't want to call. They have to ask."
The city has been riven by protests since the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man hit seven times in the back by police as he was getting into a car while they were trying to arrest him. On the eve of his visit, Trump defended a teenage supporter accused of fatally shooting two men at a demonstration in Kenosha last week and accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of siding with "anarchists" and "rioters" in the unrest.
Trump's motorcade passed a mix of supporters, many holding American flags, and protesters, some carrying signs that read "Black Lives Matter." As a massive police presence, complete with several armoured vehicles, secured the area, barricades were set up along several of the city's major thoroughfares to keep onlookers some distance from the passing presidential vehicles.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who deployed the National Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further. The White House said the president was expected to meet with law enforcement and tour "property affected by recent riots."
"I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together," Evers wrote in a letter to Trump.
Several members of the Kenosha County Board sent their own letter, however, saying Trump's "leadership in this time of crisis is greatly appreciated by those devastated by the violence in Kenosha."
Trump insisted his appearance could "increase enthusiasm" in Wisconsin, perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state in the presidential race, as the White House said he "wants to visit hurting Americans."
The White House said Trump was not going to meet with Blake's family. The family held a "community celebration" to correspond with Trump's visit.
"We don't need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city," Justin Blake, an uncle, said in a statement. "We need justice and relief for our vibrant community."
He said Trump's comments over the last four years have given police officers an incentive to brutalize Black men like his nephew and that he doesn't care about Trump's motivation for visiting Kenosha. Instead, he's focused on getting justice and healing the city.
WATCH | Jacob Blake's uncle says his family wants justice for his nephew:
Rev. Jesse Jackson said recent remarks by the president have emboldened and inspired militia members and justified the fatal shootings of two protesters in Kenosha on Aug. 25. He called the president's comments "polarizing."
The NAACP said Tuesday that neither presidential candidate should visit the Wisconsin city as tension simmers. Biden's team has considered a visit to Kenosha and has indicated that a trip to Wisconsin was imminent but has not offered details.
Trump was expected to take credit for calling in the National Guard — an act taken by Evers — and for surging federal law enforcement to the city to restore the peace. The White House said Trump was not going to meet with Blake's family.
"I am a tremendous fan of law enforcement and I want to thank law enforcement," Trump told Fox News in an interview Monday night. "They've done a good job."
Trump suggested that some police officers "choke" when faced with challenging situations, "just like in a golf tournament — they miss a three-foot putt."
Trump 'stoking violence': Biden
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in his most direct attacks yet, accused Trump earlier Monday of causing the divisions that have ignited the violence. He delivered an uncharacteristically blistering speech in Pittsburgh and distanced himself from radical forces involved in altercations.
Biden said of Trump: "He doesn't want to shed light, he wants to generate heat, and he's stoking violence in our cities. He can't stop the violence because for years he's fomented it."
Trump, for his part, reiterated that he blames radical troublemakers stirred up and backed by Biden. But when he was asked about one of his own supporters who was charged with killing two men during the mayhem in Kenosha, Trump declined to denounce the killings and suggested that the 17-year-old suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, was acting in self-defence.
After a confrontation in which he fatally shot one man, police say, Rittenhouse fell while being chased by people trying to disarm him. A second person was shot and killed.
"That was an interesting situation," Mr. Trump told reporters Monday during a news conference. "He was trying to get away from them I guess, it looks like, and he fell. And then they very violently attacked him. And it is something that we're looking at right now and it's under investigation. I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed. But it's under investigation."
Biden saw Trump's impact far differently, accusing the president of "poisoning" the nation's values.
In a statement after Trump's news conference but before his Fox News remarks, Biden said: "Tonight, the president declined to rebuke violence. He wouldn't even repudiate one of his supporters who is charged with murder because of his attacks on others. He is too weak, too scared of the hatred he has stirred to put an end to it."
WATCH | Biden condemns looting, property destruction:
Trump and his campaign team have seized upon the unrest in Kenosha, as well as in Portland, Ore., where a Trump supporter was shot and killed, leaning hard into a defence of law and order while suggesting that Biden is beholden to extremists.
In Pittsburgh, Biden resoundingly condemned violent protesters and called for their prosecution — addressing a key Trump critique.
"It's lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted," Biden said. And he leaned on his own 47-year career in politics to defend himself against Republican attacks.
The former vice-president also tried to refocus the race on what has been its defining theme — Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 180,000 Americans dead — after a multi-day onslaught by the president's team to make the campaign about the violence rattling American cities.
Biden declared that even as Trump is "trying to scare America," what's really causing the nation's fear is Trump's own failures.
"You want to talk about fear? They're afraid they're going to get COVID, they're afraid they're going to get sick and die," Biden said.
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