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“A Declaration of War Against Americans”: Trump Threatens to Deploy Military to Quell Protests

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As a historic week-long uprising against police violence continues and curfews are in place across the United States, President Trump has declared himself “the president of law and order” and threatened to send thousands of heavily armed soldiers into the streets. “President Trump’s speech almost amounted to a declaration of war against Americans,” says Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We also speak with William Arkin, longtime reporter on the military, who notes Trump is getting “no pushback” from Defense Department officials.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have so much to do today as an historic week-long uprising against police violence continues and curfews are in place across the United States. President Trump has declared himself “the president of law and order” and threatened Monday to send thousands of heavily armed soldiers into the streets.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them. I am also taking swift and decisive action to protect our great capital, Washington, D.C. What happened in this city last night was a total disgrace. As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults and the wanton destruction of property.

AMY GOODMAN: While Trump spoke from the Rose Garden, blasts could be heard from nearby Lafayette Park as the National Guard and officers dressed in riot gear fired tear gas, rubber bullets and flashbangs to disperse peaceful protesters. Moments later, Trump walked through the cleared park to have his photo taken with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was boarded up. When he returned to the White House, Trump refused to take questions from reporters as he pumped his fist and posed for another photo op.

JIM ACOSTA: Do you have a word for the protesters that were tear-gassed so you could make that trip, Mr. President?

REPORTER: Mr. President, what are you doing about excessive police use of force?

JIM ACOSTA: Mr. President, is this still a democracy?

AMY GOODMAN: That last reporter saying, “Mr. President, is this still a democracy?”

The president’s actions were widely denounced. D.C. Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde criticized Trump for using the church as a, quote, “backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus,” unquote. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote on Twitter, quote, “The fascist speech Donald Trump just delivered verged on a declaration of war against American citizens.” The chief of police in Arlington County, Virginia, pulled his officers from D.C. after they were used to clear the park, saying their safety and the safety of others was endangered for a photo op.

This is police and the National Guard clearing peaceful protesters from the streets of Washington, D.C., before the 7 p.m. curfew.

PROTESTER: Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!

AMY GOODMAN: A tall barrier fence has now been erected around Lafayette Park across from the White House.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. And in Irvington, New York, William Arkin is with us, a longtime reporter on military and nuclear policy, author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Kristen Clarke, let’s begin with you. Your concerns about Donald Trump’s speech last night saying he’s deploying thousands and thousands of troops to Washington, D.C., and all over the country to quell the protests?

KRISTEN CLARKE: You know, President Trump’s speech almost amounted to a declaration of war on Americans, on peaceful Americans who are out right now exercising their First Amendment right to speak out, and here to speak out against the long-standing problem of police violence and racial violence which has beleaguered our nation.

President Trump has invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807. This is a law that has been used in the past to deploy the military to states to deal with, for example, resistance to the desegregation orders that had been put in place for the University of Mississippi. When officials were hostile and recalcitrant, President Kennedy ordered that troops go in to force the state to comply with the law, here the civil rights law that required desegregation. We saw President Bush deploy the military to Louisiana to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, but that happened in coordination with officials in the state of Louisiana.

Here, Trump single-handedly seeks to deploy the military to states all across our country over the objections of state officials and with the sole and singular purpose of silencing Americans. In many ways, this is the death of democracy, because people who are out right now have one singular goal: to ensure that at this moment we not turn our backs on the long-overdue work that’s necessary to rid our nation of the scourge of police violence that has resulted in innumerous deaths of unarmed African Americans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kristen Clarke, I’m wondering — you mentioned the 1962 Oxford, Mississippi. There was also, in 1958, President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, also to enforce desegregation orders in the public schools there. But in the Oxford, Mississippi, the difference was that there were armed whites that actually attacked federal marshals. Several — dozens of federal marshals were wounded before the federal troops came in. But then, also, under another Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, federal troops were sent into Washington, D.C. after the assassination of Martin Luther King and rioting in D.C. They were sent into Detroit, several other cities in 1967. So, what is the difference between, as you’re saying, what President Trump is claiming to do now versus some of these prior instances of not just National Guard, but actually federal troops being sent into states?

KRISTEN CLARKE: There is deep hypocrisy here. You bring up examples of white hostility and racism throughout our history that has torn apart communities and divided our nation. And those moments were moments where we needed federal intervention, with all deliberate speed, to ensure compliance with our civil rights laws. And here we are in 2020 dealing yet again with the failure to comply with civil rights laws: police departments that abuse the civil rights of unarmed African Americans far too often.

And, you know, it’s quite remarkable when you think about Charlottesville and the hate rally that unfolded there in 2017 that resulted in harm to individuals and loss of life, the loss of Heather Heyer’s life. And President Trump’s reaction then couldn’t be any different. There, he referred to the violent individuals who drove that rally as “very fine people.” And here, he’s essentially declaring war, declaring war on people who are out solely to speak out against racial violence, against police violence, people who are saying, “Enough is enough,” people who are saying that “We see these incidents time and time again captured on video, and we refuse to allow you to turn a blind eye to this any longer.”

And the killing of George Floyd, these images have gone viral across our country, across the globe. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. And here we are, people all across our country who are speaking out, and it is most unfortunate that President Trump seeks to shut them down and silence them with the threat of deploying the military.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Trump speaking Monday during a call with the nation’s governors.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a lot of men. We have all the men and women that you need. But people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate. And you have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump speaking to the governors, who were pushing back. Bill Arkin, you have been writing about this, longtime reporter on military and nuclear policy. What Trump’s plans are, now he’s announced them, though he hasn’t actually invoked the act. But can you talk about what you understand the plans to be, from your sources?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Thank you for having me on, Amy.

I think it’s important to say at this moment that the Insurrection Act has not been evoked. And what the president has done is he’s made a threat. He’s made a threat to the governors that says if you’re not able to safeguard civilian lives and property, and if you refuse to protect the civil rights of your citizens, then the federal government will intervene. That’s the provisions of the Insurrection Act, as it reads.

Now, that’s not the only condition under which the president can call federal forces out. And in the case of the District of Columbia, for instance, he’s already activated the District of Columbia National Guard in federal status. So, in fact, we now have a National Guard in our country, as of yesterday, under federal control. And there have been military police and infantry soldiers moved from Fort Drum, New York, from Fort Riley, Kansas, and from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to the D.C. area, and they’re now mustering at military bases at what’s called Force Protection Condition Delta, the highest condition, ready to take control of Washington, D.C., if the president so orders. So we have this very fluid and difficult situation because there are already 20,000 national guardsmen and women on the streets of America. The Guard has been mobilized in 26 different states and the District of Columbia.

But I want to say this about the military being on the streets. In many cases, we’ve seen instances where the National Guard has played a calming role. For instance, I saw news stories last night out of Tennessee, where the national guardsmen of the Tennessee National Guard put down their shields and stood quietly and unarmed in front of a crowd and was actually serving in a calming presence. The military also, I think, has the ability to relieve police forces who have now been fighting protesters and rioters for going on five nights. So there could be some usefulness in having the National Guard and the military.

The problem here is President Trump and his both lack of knowledge and indifference to what the law actually requires the president to do. And I would say the problem is the Defense Department leadership, Secretary of Defense Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who I think have provided terrible military advice to the president and no pushback — that’s what I’m hearing from my sources — in terms of saying to him that the activation of those National Guard forces under federal control and the intervention of federal military forces onto the streets of America would actually be inflammatory rather than calming.

So I think the National Guard, as it’s currently deployed — that is, under governor control in 26 different states, and there are additional National Guard units now being activated — that that is enough, and that the idea that the federal government has to intervene, particularly the federal government law enforcement authorities, which number in the tens of thousands, I think is an escalation that would just make the situation worse on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, William Arkin, I wanted to pursue this point that you mentioned in terms of sometimes the National Guard can create a calming situation. I recall back — because I was there in 1992 at the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King situation, when the police were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. And back then, by the time the Guard came in, there were already 62 people killed — 63 people killed in Los Angeles. Over 12,000 people had been arrested. And there was hundreds of millions, as much as a billion, dollars in damage to L.A. We’re seeing some disturbances in many cities and some looting, but nothing at the scale that would require a massive military presence. And I’m wondering your sense of this question of proportionality in terms of the government response, because by the time the Guard came into L.A., there was a sense by the residents of Los Angeles of almost relief, because there had been so much tension between the community and the local police and the commissioner then, Daryl Gates, that the Guard were almost seen as a neutral force, to some degree.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, there’s two things to remember, Juan, when one talks about the National Guard. The National Guard in most states are the very citizens and neighbors of those states. And so, when the National Guard comes into Los Angeles in the case there, where the governor of California requested the National Guard to come in, requested President Bush activate the National Guard under federal control and bring them in, those were Californians. And it really does make a difference to people on the ground that they are local people who are involved.

I think the danger of bringing federal government troops into a state is that they’re not locals, and therefore they see their role and they see the world in a different way. They see it more, as the military stupidly said yesterday, Secretary Esper, you know, “the battle space of America.” Well, it’s not a battle space. This is not a combat zone. And as far as we’ve seen everywhere around the country, it may be the case that the resources of local police are in fact going to be exhausted, especially if rioting continues over many more days, in which case the National Guard does provide a fresh force and does provide a different face. And especially, I think, for African Americans in America, I don’t think the military necessarily is an opponent, whereas many African Americans see the police as the opponent. So, there is a —

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, you tweeted, “Federal surveillance aircraft, helicopters and drones — from the @DHSgov and the @FBI, plus the military — have flown over at least eight cities last night, conducting reconnaissance, taking photos and video of protests.”

WILLIAM ARKIN: The federal government has done many things, including the monitoring of social media, the intercepting of phone calls, the intercepting of cellphones, the use of cellphones to locate people, the use of drones, surveillance aircraft, flown by the FBI, by Customs and Border Protection and by the military, including helicopters that have been flying over U.S. cities conducting surveillance missions. This has all been done in the last 24 to 48 hours. And it is a questionable use of the military force. But up in the air and doing that surveillance, if in fact it’s done under the governors’ control and feeding that information to the governors in order for them to be able to command their forces, to get better situational awareness and improve —

AMY GOODMAN: But clearly the governors were fighting back, in their call, against President Trump last night, a number of the governors, on this. He was talking about dominating the people of the United States. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Kristen Clarke. This is, of course, not the first time that President Trump, in the midst of another crisis, has suddenly resorted to calling out the military. I’m thinking earlier in his administration, the bringing out of troops to the border with Mexico, and again overusing the military in an attempt to deal with another political problem that he had. I’m wondering: Do you see parallels, as well, between his response to immigration and the use of troops and now to protests against police abuse?

KRISTEN CLARKE: Well, there’s weaponization of tools at his disposal at every turn. And his use of social media, President Trump’s use of social media, is perhaps the best example of how he has weaponized this platform to incite violence and to escalate tensions across our country. I do indeed see parallels.

You know, I just want to make sure that I underscore, though, that we can’t lose sight. We can’t lose sight of what’s at the heart of these demonstrations and protests. And it is the public crying out for desperately needed reform of the way policing is carried out in our country.

And we have a roadmap for this. We have studied this issue time and time again. And at my organization, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, we are pushing Congress, we are urging states right now, to work on things like bans on chokeholds, bans on racial profiling. We need Congress to revise a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. 242, which would make it easier to hold police officers accountable when they use deadly force against unarmed individuals. We need a database so that we can track bad cops who were purged from one police department, so that they don’t jump right over to the next.

Racism infects every stage of our criminal justice system in the United States, and now is the time that we confront this crisis head on. And we need not be distracted by President Trump’s invocations of executive orders, dangling of threats of prosecuting people and throwing the book at them, invoking, if not literally, figuratively, the Insurrection Act of 1807. In my view, many of these actions by President Trump are intended to derail the underlying objective and goals of demonstrations and protests, which have been very intentional and clear in their focus.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and William Arkin, longtime reporter on military and nuclear policy.

When we come back, we go to Los Angeles to speak with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Get Off the Track,” a prominent song of the 1840s abolitionist struggle, made famous by the Hutchinson Family Singers of New Hampshire, performed here by the Dutchess Anti-Slavery Singers.

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