A tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump with a rule-violation notice that includes the phrase "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" is displayed on a smartphone on May 29.Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Trump Defends His Looting Tweet as Cautionary, Not Threatening


President Donald Trump defended a tweet that appeared to threaten an armed response to violence in Minneapolis after the death of a handcuffed black man in police custody, saying that it was actually a caution about protests getting out of control.

At an evening meeting with business leaders at the White House, Trump tried to explain why he tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The tweet, sent shortly before 1 a.m. Friday, re-ignited a debate over his views on racial issues and social-media conduct.

Trump said he’d heard the phrase used before but didn’t know its origin. “It means when there’s looting, people get shot and they die,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question. “And that’s the way it was meant.”

The president also said, “I understand the hurt, I understand the pain,” and described how he called the family of George Floyd, the dead man.

Trump’s unusual attempt to clean up his remarks came after intense criticism of his earlier comments from Democrats and civil-rights advocates.

The tweet echoed a remark made in 1967 by a white Miami police chief when announcing tougher policing policies for the Florida city’s African American neighborhoods.

Twitter Inc. responded by slapping a rule-violation notice on the tweet, saying the message promoted violence. That escalated tension between the social media company and the White House, following Trump’s move Thursday to issue an executive order seeking to curb the social media company’s liability protections.

The president effort to cast his looting-and-shooting tweet in a different light began Friday afternoon, just before an event in the Rose Garden that he billed as a news conference. “Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night,” he said in a new tweet.

Trump didn’t take take questions during the event, but he did later during the meeting with business leaders.

“The looters should not be allowed to drown out the voices of so many peaceful protesters,” he said. He added that the demonstrations can’t be allowed the descend into chaos and violence.

“Law and order will prevail,” he said.

The president added that “most policemen -- you see the great job they do. They do a fantastic job. But this was a terrible insult to police and the policemen.”

Police in Minneapolis on Friday arrested Derek Chauvin, the officer who was seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck during an arrest on Monday. Floyd, who was on the ground and handcuffed at the time, died after saying he couldn’t breathe. The episode prompted a nationwide outcry and set off protests around the country. In Minneapolis, some of those protests turned violent earlier this week, and on Thursday the police stationhouse where Chauvin worked was burned.

Trump’s Democratic rival for the White House, Joe Biden, took up the issue in a speech broadcast live on his website on Friday, assailing the violence and racism faced by African Americans and vowing to fight for racial justice.

“We need to stand up as a nation with the black community, with all minority communities, and come together as one America,” Biden said. “The very soul of America is at stake. We must commit as a nation to pursue justice with every ounce of our being.”

“He is calling for violence against American citizens during a moment of pain for so many. I’m furious, and you should be too,” Biden said of Trump earlier Friday.

Tone Changed

Trump said Thursday he had ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “take a very strong look” at Floyd’s death and that the episode appeared to be “a very bad thing.” But his tone changed early Friday morning after the burning of the stationhouse was broadcast on television. On Twitter he spoke of sending troops to Minneapolis.

Trump’s threat appeared to quote former Miami police chief Walter Headley, whose aggressive policing in black communities led to civil unrest and violence, according to the Miami Herald. In 1967 Headley was quoted by the Herald as saying, “I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The American Civil Liberties Union called Trump’s message “hypocritical, immoral and illegal.”

Blaming Democrats, Media

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale responded by accusing Twitter, the news media and Democrats of “twisting” the president’s words “solely for the purpose of political gain, ratings, and cable news profit.”

“A man has died, a police officer is charged with murder, an American city is in chaos, and Democrats and the media see only a political opportunity and a chance to make money,” Parscale said in a statement. “Their behavior is reprehensible and should be roundly condemned by all Americans.”

Trump has often sided with law enforcement in the debate over police brutality, drawing criticism from civil rights activists. Speaking to law enforcement officers on Long Island in 2017, he appeared to endorse officers’ rough treatment of suspects under arrest. “Please don’t be too nice,” he told them.

He’s also frequently criticized black National Football League players for protesting police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the National Anthem before games. Trump sidestepped a reporter’s question on Friday about whether those protests were justified.

And Trump has repeatedly refused to apologize for urging the return of the death penalty in New York in 1989 following the arrest of the young men known as the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated in the rape and beating of a jogger. Trump has continued to suggest the men are guilty.

— With assistance by Justin Sink