A day after claiming he didn’t mean to suggest that law enforcement officials should shoot people who were part of the unrest in Minnesota, President Trump said on Saturday that the Secret Service had been prepared to sic the “most vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House gates on Friday night.
Those comments were the first of several Mr. Trump made throughout the day that veered wildly in tone and content — from threatening violence against the protesters outside the White House in the morning to sounding notes of sympathy for the pain caused by the “horror” of police brutality in the afternoon to a series of evening messages on Twitter, including one defending the police in New York City.
And they came as the president was facing three simultaneous crises — the rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout from the measures taken to control it, and the violence and unrest unfolding in several cities across the United States.
“Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService,” Mr. Trump tweeted in a string of four posts Saturday morning. “They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe.”
He continued that the Secret Service had allowed the protesters to “scream & rant as much as they wanted” and only acted when “someone got too frisky or out of line.”
“The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic,” he added. “Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”
Mr. Trump claimed that Secret Service agents had told him they were clamoring for engagement with the protesters. “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and good practice,” he said he had been told.
He also appeared to invite his own supporters to amass outside the White House on Saturday to counter the protesters, despite a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in effect in Washington amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???” he tweeted, using the acronym for his first campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” And he tried to paint the protesters as recruited agitators instead of people organically gathering to make a statement.
Mr. Trump’s renewed threat of violence against the protesters came as protests erupted in cities across the country.
And it came a day after he had tweeted — and then tried to walk back — that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to protests in Minneapolis against the killing of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer.
That phrase was used in 1967 by a Miami police chief in reference to crackdowns on young black men. The chief, Walter Headley, accused the men of operating under cover of the civil rights movement and said his police force didn’t mind being accused of police brutality.
Mr. Trump waited nearly 14 hours to try to walk that statement back, claiming he had meant that when people loot, they then sometimes fire guns as well. And in remarks at a late afternoon event at the White House, Mr. Trump conceded that some of the protesters had legitimate grievances.
Mr. Trump traveled to Florida on Saturday for the second time this week to watch SpaceX launch a rocket to the International Space Station. The initial launch was scrubbed shortly before it had been set to take place on Wednesday.
Talking to reporters as he left the White House, Mr. Trump was asked about his tweet that seemed to invite his own supporters to rally outside the White House. As he often does, Mr. Trump distanced himself from his own statements, saying he was merely asking a question and that he didn’t know if people were coming. He claimed not to be trying to stoke racial strife.
“By the way, they love African-American people, they love black people,” Mr. Trump volunteered, unprompted, describing his own supporters, who are overwhelmingly white.
“MAGA loves the black people,” he added.
He reiterated his condemnation of Minnesota’s governor and the mayor of Minneapolis, both Democrats, painting the matter in starkly political terms as his opposition to “liberal” activists.
“They’ve got to get tougher,” Mr. Trump said of the responses to the unrest, which resulted on Thursday night in the burning of the police station where the officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death had worked. “They’ve got to get tougher. They’ve got to be strong. Honor the memory of George Floyd. Honor his memory. They have to get tougher, and by being tougher, they will be honoring his memory.”
Outside the White House on Saturday evening, protesters spent hours in standoffs with the police, wresting away barricades and volleying projectiles and being met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Some nearby buildings were vandalized, and vehicles were set ablaze. There were no signs that Mr. Trump’s supporters had turned out in significant numbers.
Once Mr. Trump arrived in Florida on Saturday, as several of his advisers urged him to modulate his rhetoric, he once again sounded a note different from his threats from earlier in the day and on Twitter.
“The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy,” Mr. Trump said. “It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger and grief.”
He added: “I stand before you as a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace, and I stand before you in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack and menace. Healing, not hatred; justice, not chaos, are the mission at hand.”
He added that he supported “the rights of peaceful protesters, and we hear their pleas.”
He continued: “But what we are now seeing on the streets of our cities has nothing to do with justice or peace. The memory of George Floyd is now being exploited by rioters, looters and anarchists.”
On Saturday night, advisers said that Mr. Trump planned to continue speak in blunt terms about maintaining law and order and against police officers being injured. But they conceded that Mr. Trump had shown no ability to effectively modulate his rhetoric in the five years he’s been a political figure.
Aides were debating whether to have Mr. Trump deliver an address to the nation, with some advisers, like the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, considering it, according to three people familiar with the discussions. But others said they feared that such a speech would only exacerbate the crisis.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized protesting groups that are predominantly made up of black people. In the 2016 campaign, he condemned Black Lives Matter protesters as a “threat.”
Since he became president, he has also denounced protesters critical of his administration as being members of “antifa,” a contraction of the word “anti-fascist.” The name has become a catchall term for a loose affiliation of radical activists who oppose the far right.
On Saturday, Mr. Trump insisted that the protesters were far-left extremists, a claim that Attorney General William P. Barr echoed on Saturday.
“Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda,” Mr. Barr said.
He added, “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups, far-left extremist groups, using antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.”
While it is the responsibility of state and local officials to get the rioting under control, Mr. Barr said the F.B.I. and other federal law enforcement agencies would support those efforts. He warned it was a violation of federal law to cross state lines “to incite or participate in violent rioting.” The Department of Justice and the F.B.I., he said, would enforce those laws.
On Twitter on Saturday, Mr. Trump also denounced several mainstream news outlets, a day after a CNN reporter was arrested on camera for no apparent reason by police officers in riot gear in Minneapolis and a female reporter for a local television station was shot with what appeared to be pepper balls by an officer in Louisville, Ky.