WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump spent Friday walking back his post-midnight “thugs” tweet about Minneapolis protesters that added to outrage over the police killing of a black man.
Trump's later repeated condemnation of the killing and outreach to the man's family was a marked change in tone from his earlier comments that also invoked a civil-rights-era phrase fraught with racist overtones.
“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump had written in a tweet that was quickly flagged by Twitter as violating rules against “glorifying violence.” Trump later said his comments had been misconstrued. “Frankly it means when there’s looting, people get shot and they die,” he said.
Trump's whiplash comments came after protesters torched a Minneapolis police station on Thursday night, capping three days of searing demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who was captured on video pleading for air as a white police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes.
And they underscored Trump’s complicated relationship with race as he tries to maintain a law-and-order mantle while looking to appeal to black voters during an election year. They also highlighted his refusal to avoid controversy or cede the spotlight even as the battered nation tries to make sense of another killing and reels over the mounting COVID-19 death toll.
Trump, in his tweets, borrowed a phrase once used by former Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in a 1967 speech outlining his department’s efforts to “combat young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” In the speech, Headley said his department had been successful “because I've let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts."
“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” he said in the same speech, according to news reports from the time.
Trump, after hours of backlash, said Friday evening that he was unaware of the origins of the phrase. “But I’ve heard it for a long time, as most people have. And frankly it means when there’s looting, people get shot and they die,” he said.