KENOSHA – President Donald Trump on Tuesday rolled into this city shaken by shootings, death and unrest, hailing law enforcement for quelling disturbances but offering little to those seeking justice for Jacob Blake.
During a tour of the city and a roundtable discussion at Bradford High School, Trump declared victory in Wisconsin and said that the federal government can help other communities that face strife, including Portland, Oregon.
“Kenosha has been ravaged by anti-police and anti-American riots,” the president said as photos of the destruction in the city were displayed behind the group.
But he did not want to address what sparked protests that gave way to the destruction, refusing to answer whether he believed systemic racism was a problem in the United States. Instead, he suggested some police forces are being unfairly criticized for simply “choking.”
“When you see they have made allegations they must be fully and fairly investigated … but you can do an incredible job for years and then you have one bad apple or something bad that happens that’s bad and that’s the nightly news for three weeks,” Trump said.
When that happens, “they’re either dead or they’re in big trouble. People have to understand that. They choke sometimes,” Trump said at a table with the Kenosha police chief and Kenosha County sheriff just days after a white city police officer shot Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times.
Asked about what he would say to Blake, Trump said: “I feel terribly for anybody who goes through that. As you know it’s under investigation. It’s a big thing happening right now … I hope they come up with the right answer. It’s a complicated answer.”
During remarks, Trump said, “I really came today to thank law enforcement. Really, what you have done has been incredible, it has been really inspiring.”
Trump brought with him to Kenosha U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr and Homeland Security director Chad Wolf to announce efforts to respond to the unrest.
Trump said he will send $42 million to Wisconsin to rebuild from the unrest, including $4 million for Kenosha businesses that experienced damage and more money to prosecute crimes.
Just ahead of Trump’s visit, Gov. Tony Evers announced he and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. would make available up to $1 million worth of interest-free loans for damaged businesses in Kenosha.
Trump visits torched businesses
Trump’s first stop in Kenosha was to B&L Office Furniture, which was torched by violent protesters after Blake was shot.
“We’re going to work with you,” Trump told John Rode, who owns the Rode’s Camera Shop building a few streets over, also destroyed last week.
“We’re going to help you rebuild. It’s a great area, it’s a great state. A thing like this should never happen. They have to call early,” Trump said.
Rode, who sold his family’s camera shop to new owners in 2008, joined the president after the current owners of the business itself declined to appear with the president on his tour Tuesday.
“I said no, thank you — I didn’t want anything to do with President Trump,” co-owner Paul Willette told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If it were any other president I would, but not this one. I can’t begin to describe my frustration with him. I politely declined coming down there. I didn’t want to be part of that fiasco.”
Rode credited Trump for bringing “federal troops” to Kenosha to calm the area, though the soldiers in Kenosha are National Guard members under the direction of state officials.
“I just appreciate President Trump coming today; everybody here does,” Rode told reporters after meeting with Trump in the rubble of the furniture business.
Kenosha erupted last week with rage on Aug. 23 after Blake’s shooting.
During the third night of protests and violence, a 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse from Antioch, Illinois, brought an assault-style rifle to Kenosha’s downtown and allegedly shot three people and killed two of them. He is charged with six crimes as a result of the incident, including first-degree intentional homicide.
During the president’s tour of the city, Kenosha Police Chief Daniel Miskinis said “what transpired here was an attack on America,” but it’s unclear whether he included the deadly shooting in that assessment.
By coming to Kenosha, the president entered a potentially fraught situation. Evers and other top Democrats asked him to put off the trip to allow the city to heal.
But the president pressed ahead, landing in Waukegan, Illinois, and arriving by motorcade in Kenosha.
Thousands of people lined the streets on his route, many expressing their support for the president by waving American flags and Trump campaign signs. Others waved their middle finger and held signs of opposition. One sign read “you’re not helping.”
He surveyed some damage in Kenosha before going to Bradford High School, where a makeshift command post has been established.
The high school cafeteria was full of law enforcement and National Guard members. The group had collected items from protesters and placed them in the middle of the room as a display.
There are still more than 1,500 National Guard personnel in the city, and a curfew is in place.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told Trump that his response calling Evers to facilitate more National Guard troops ought to be a “model” for calming riots elsewhere in the country.
“All you have to do is ask and we’ll be there literally within minutes,” Trump responded.
But throughout the visit, Trump and Wisconsin Republicans accompanying him made statements that would mislead the public into believing it was Trump that authorized the National Guard forces.
Such a mobilization is under Gov. Tony Evers’ and other governors’ authority.
Blake’s family held their own event nearby and said Trump emboldened police to take aggressive and sometimes deadly action against Black Americans by defending Rittenhouse.
“That’s the language that got us here,” Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, said of Trump’s comments. “That’s the language that fed police officers all around this country (the belief) that they could attack young, unarmed Black men and shoot them in the back seven times. And that’s why I’m not directing anything toward that gentleman today, and I use that term loosely.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan criticized Trump for failing to condemn the actions of Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen.
“What we need right now are messages of healing, of uniting people, of bringing people together. I hope that the president finds that capability today. But his rhetoric up to this point has not been about healing,” Pocan said ahead of Trump’s visit.
Biden deputy campaign manager and communications director Kate Bedingfield said in a statement, “Trump failed once again to meet the moment, refusing to utter the words that Wisconsinites and Americans across the country needed to hear today from the president: a condemnation of violence of all kinds, no matter who commits it.”
Outside Bradford High School, hundreds of Trump supporters and opponents intermingled on sidewalks and parking lots. “Don’t arrest us, arrest the police,” one group chanted as others waved Trump flags.
The president refused to answer whether he thought systemic racism was a problem in the country, saying reporters should instead focus on the destruction people angry about it have committed.
“I think peaceful protesting is fantastic, it’s great,” Trump said. “But by and large this is not peaceful protesting. When you walk into an area, you see buildings that have been burned down. Fortunately, here we stopped it earlier.”
Later, he said there are people who want change, including those “who want to see law and order.”
“You don’t see them marching, you don’t see them on the streets, but what they want is a great police force, people that are going to keep them safe where their houses aren’t broken into, where they’re not raped and murdered,” he said.
Barr on Tuesday claimed federal law enforcement dispatched to Chicago picked up “information that these violent instigators were coming to Kenosha. They were coming from California, Washington state, a lot from Chicago.”
He said law enforcement expected “matters to get worse,” and added “the looting and the arson were unacceptable.”
Trump emphasized the use of the National Guard to stop the disturbances in Kenosha and he kept up criticism against Evers, who he said rejected an offer of federal help, only to turn around a day later and accept the offer.
But he also said Evers was “better than most” Democratic leaders by working with Trump after the deadly shooting on Tuesday.
Blake was shot when officers responded to a police call alleging Blake was not supposed to be at a residence in the area. Blake was shot trying to get into a vehicle outside the residence.
Police found a knife on the floorboard of the vehicle, but it’s unknown whether officers knew Blake had the knife before one shot him.
According to an update released Tuesday by the Department of Justice, the DOJ’s Department of Criminal Investigation, along with the FBI, have so far conducted 88 interviews, collected 102 evidence items, downloaded 28 videos and issued four search warrants.
Patrick Marley and Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.
Editor’s note, Sept. 1, 10:30 p.m.: This story has been updated. John Rode owns the building where Rode’s Camera Shop was located, but no longer owns the business. Trump did not visit the former camera shop