Trump tries a new response after George Floyd's death

President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – It was the kind of personal statement expected from a president in response to the disturbing video of a black man gasping for help as a white policeman pinned him to the street by the neck. But it was a very different tone for President Donald Trump, who has often been silent in the face of white-on-black violence and has a long history of defending police.

“I feel very, very badly," Trump said Thursday of George Floyd's death while handcuffed and in the custody of Minneapolis police. "That’s a very shocking sight.”

Once more likely to hew to the “blue lives matter” mantra, Trump and his allies are questioning an officer’s conduct and calling for justice for Floyd. But some activists doubt that Trump has suddenly evolved on the issue of police brutality and instead see election-year political calculations.

“This is the first race-tinged case that I’ve ever heard him address” as president, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and Trump critic who has known the president for decades. “So therefore he cannot be upset when people feel that it’s empty words because it is so out of character.”

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump was taking the death seriously.

“This has nothing to do with politics and is only about making sure justice is done, and anyone who suggests otherwise is only seeking to sow division and ignore the President’s unwavering support for the African-American community,” Deere said, citing Trump’s support for criminal justice reform legislation, Opportunity Zones and historically black colleges and universities.

Trump has been silent on a number of high-profile police-involved killings, including that of Stephon Clark, a black man shot by Sacramento police in 2018.

“This is something that is a local matter and that’s something that we feel should be left up to the local authorities,” then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at the time.