By ZEKE MILLER, JONATHAN LEMIRE and WILL WEISSERT
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — President Donald Trump dove into the latest eruption in the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice on Tuesday, visiting the “destruction” left by rioters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and declaring it was enabled by Democratic leaders.
Soon after arriving in the city, a visit made over the objections of state and local leaders, Trump toured the charred remains of a block besieged by violence and fire. He spoke to the owners of a century-old furniture store that had been destroyed and blasted the Democrats in charge of Kenosha and Wisconsin.
“They just don’t want us to come in and then destruction is done,” said Trump, who has offered to send in federal enforcement. “These governors don’t want to call and the mayors don’t want to call. They have to ask.”
The city has been riven by protests since the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man hit seven times in the back by police as he was getting into a car while they were trying to arrest him. On the eve of his visit, Trump defended a teenage supporter accused of fatally shooting two men at a demonstration in Kenosha last week and accused Democrat Joe Biden of siding with “anarchists” and “rioters” in the unrest.
Trump’s motorcade passed a mix of supporters, many holding American flags, and protesters, some carrying signs that read Black Lives Matter. As a massive police presence, complete with several armored vehicles, secured the area, barricades were set up along several of the city’s major thoroughfares to keep onlookers some distance from the passing presidential vehicles.
Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers who deployed the National Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, had pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further.
“I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing,” Evers wrote in a letter to Trump. “I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together.”
Biden has assailed Trump over the deadly protests that have sprung up on his watch. But Trump, claiming the mantle of the “law and order” Republican candidate, has been vocal in supporting law enforcement and offered himself as the leader best positioned to keep Americans safe.
He insisted his appearance in Kenosha would “increase enthusiasm” in Wisconsin, perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state in the presidential race, as the White House said he “wants to visit hurting Americans.” The White House said Trump was not going to meet with Blake’s family. Blake’s family planned a Tuesday “community celebration” to correspond with Trump’s visit.
“We don’t need more pain and division from a president set on advancing his campaign at the expense of our city,” Justin Blake, an uncle, said in a statement. “We need justice and relief for our vibrant community.”
The NAACP said Tuesday neither candidate should visit the Wisconsin city as tension simmers. Biden’s team has considered a visit to Kenosha and has indicated that a trip to Wisconsin was imminent but has not offered details.
Biden, in his most direct attacks yet, accused Trump earlier Monday of causing the divisions that have ignited the violence. He delivered an uncharacteristically blistering speech in Pittsburgh and distanced himself from radical forces involved in altercations.
Biden said of Trump: “He doesn’t want to shed light, he wants to generate heat, and he’s stoking violence in our cities. He can’t stop the violence because for years he’s fomented it.”
Trump, for his part, reiterated that he blames radical troublemakers stirred up and backed by Biden. But when he was asked about one of his own supporters who was charged with killing two men during the mayhem in Kenosha, Trump declined to denounce the killings and suggested that the 17-year-old suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, was acting in self-defense.
After a confrontation in which he fatally shot one man, police say, Rittenhouse fell while being chased by people trying to disarm him. A second person was shot and killed.
“That was an interesting situation,” Trump said Monday during a news conference. “He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like, and he fell. And then they very violently attacked him. … He was in very big trouble. He would have been — he probably would’ve been killed.”
After Trump’s defense of Rittenhouse, Biden laced into his response, saying in a statement: “Tonight, the president declined to rebuke violence. He wouldn’t even repudiate one of his supporters who is charged with murder because of his attacks on others. He is too weak, too scared of the hatred he has stirred to put an end to it.”
The president also suggested that some police officers “choke” when faced with challenging situations and offered an odd comparison, likening them to golfers who “miss a 3-foot putt.”
Trump and his campaign team have seized upon the unrest in Kenosha, as well as in Portland, Oregon, where a Trump supporter was shot and killed, leaning hard into a defense of law and order while suggesting that Biden is beholden to extremists.
Trump, en route to Wisconsin, lamented the shooting in Oregon and again tried to link the violence to Democratic leadership.
Trump aides believe that tough-on-crime stance will help him with voters and that the more the national discourse is about anything other than the coronavirus, the better it is for the president. In the interview with Fox, Trump insisted that if he were not president, “you would have riots like you’ve never seen.”
Protests in Kenosha began the night of Blake’s shooting, Aug. 23 and were concentrated in the blocks around the county courthouse downtown. The first three nights, more than 30 fires were set and numerous businesses were vandalized. There was an estimated $2 million in damage to city property, and Kenosha’s mayor has said he is seeking $30 million from the state to help rebuild.
The violence reached its peak the night of Aug. 25, two days after Blake was shot, when police said a 17-year-old armed with an illegal semi-automatic rifle shot and killed two protesters in the streets. Since then marches organized both by backers of police and Blake’s family have all been peaceful with no vandalism or destruction to public property.
In Pittsburgh, Biden resoundingly condemned violent protesters and called for their prosecution — addressing a key Trump critique. And the former vice president also tried to refocus the race on what has been its defining theme — Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left more than 180,000 Americans dead — after a multi-day onslaught by the president’s team to make the campaign about the violence rattling American cities.
Biden’s wife, Jill, on Tuesday kicked off a multi-week, 10-city tour of schools disrupted by the pandemic in eight battleground states, drawing a direct line from the empty classrooms to the administration’s failures combating COVID-19.
During her tour of a Wilmington, Delaware, school, she spoke with teachers and administrators about doubts that in-person learning will actually resume anytime soon and the challenges — including obtaining new small desks and protective equipment to make sure classrooms can handle social distancing — if they do. She said feelings about heading back to school “have turned from excitement into anxiety, and the playgrounds are still.”