WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his allies have seized on calls to “defund the police” as a dangerous example of Democratic overreach as he fights for momentum amid crises that threaten his reelection.
Key Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, are distancing themselves from the “defund” push, which some supporters say is a symbolic commitment to end systemic racism and shift policing priorities rather than an actual plan to eliminate law enforcement agencies.
But confusion over the proposal's intent has created an opportunity for the Republican president, who has struggled to navigate the delicate debate over racial justice, risking support from people of color, suburban women and independents less than five months before Election Day.
Facing increasing pressure to weigh in, Biden addressed the issue Monday in an interview with “CBS Evening News.”
“I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency, honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community, everybody in the community," Biden said.
Other opponents of the movement include Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a former presidential candidate and one of two black Democratic senators, and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., head of the Congressional Black Caucus.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson, in an interview, also declined to endorse calls to defund the police.
“I support the energy behind it. I don’t know what that substantively means. As I’m talking to people about the concept, I’ve gotten three different explanations,” said Johnson, who has criticized Trump. “We know there has to be a change in the culture of policing in this country.”
Democrats are well-positioned to win over the political center this fall, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who said Trump's uneven actions and rhetoric at a time of sweeping social unrest are “killing him.”
Luntz added, however, that Democrats risk their advantage by embracing policies viewed as radical following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The handcuffed black man died after a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes.
Municipal officials in Minneapolis have endorsed the “defund the police” language backed by some civil rights activists and a handful of progressive House Democrats. Protesters over the weekend also painted “DEFUND THE POLICE” in large yellow letters on a street close to the White House.
But there was little evidence that the effort was gaining momentum in Congress. Some Democrats described it as bad politics, even if most Democrats shared the desire to overhaul policing.
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a white moderate who lost her 2018 reelection bid, said “defund the police” is “a horrible name” that misconstrues the goal.
“By starting with the word ‘defund,’ you’ve left the impression that you are doing something much more radical than what needs to be done,” said Heitkamp, a leader of the One Country Project, which is trying to help Democrats connect better with rural voters.
She said the term left her frustrated that “there’s going to be somebody who’s going to try to find an opportunity in this, especially among the Republican Party, and use it now as an excuse not to address what is a very real problem in America.”
That’s largely what played out as the Trump campaign and congressional Republicans sought to link Democrats to the defund effort.
“This year has seen the lowest crime numbers in our Country’s recorded history, and now the Radical Left Democrats want to Defund and Abandon our Police," Trump declared on social media. "Sorry, I want LAW & ORDER!”
The House GOP campaign arm sent out emails condemning “defund the police” and connecting it to Democratic candidates.
“No industry is safe from Democrats’ abolish culture,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “First they wanted to abolish private health insurance, then it was capitalism and now it’s the police. What’s next, the fire department?”
Democrats on Capitol Hill unveiled a sweeping proposal Monday to address police brutality that did not include plans to strip funding from the police. The Justice in Policing Act would limit legal protections for police, create a national database of excessive-force incidents and ban chokeholds, among other changes.
Rep. Greg Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a group of moderate House Democrats called the New Democrat Coalition, said Trump’s tweets accusing Democrats of seeking to abolish the police are a diversion.
“It sounds like the guy that’s the 45th president is trying to distract from what the real issue is, the brutality and the murder of George Floyd,” said Meeks, who represents New York. “And we’re not going to allow them to do that.”
Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, who is white and represents a Trump-leaning district in northeastern Pennsylvania, rejected calls to defund the police outright.
"I don’t care how it’s named, I’m not for that,” he said, while noting he’s joined protest marches in his district.
Asked if GOP use of the term “defund the police” might erode his support, Cartwright said, “If they can get voters to believe that lie about me, I suppose. Am I afraid of it? No.”
Trump, meanwhile, is grasping for a strategy that might generate some momentum. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this weekend found that 80% of Americans believe the country is out of control.
Some Trump advisers have considered having the president deliver an address on police-community relations and racial injustice, while others believe it would do little good, according to two White House officials and Republicans close to the White House. They also discussed creating a task force featuring Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the only black member of Trump's Cabinet, but that has yet to get off the ground.
The people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Before the pandemic, Trump advisers believed the president had a real chance of making inroads with black voters, given his support for criminal justice reform and the strength of the economy. They're less confident now.
Peoples reported from Montclair, N.J., and Lemire from New York. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.