WASHINGTON (AP) -- Claiming the mantle of the “law and order” candidate, President Donald Trump is offering himself as the leader best positioned to keep Americans safe, a day after Democratic rival Joe Biden assailed him over the deadly protests that have sprung up on his watch.
Trump is diving head-first into the latest eruption in the nation's reckoning over racial injustice with a trip Tuesday — over the objections of local leaders — to Kenosha, Wisconsin, which has been riven by protests since the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back by police. Trump has defended a teenage supporter accused of fatally shooting two men in Kenosha last week and accused the former vice president of siding with “anarchists" and “rioters.”
Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who deployed the National Guard to quell demonstrations in response to the Blake shooting, pleaded with Trump to stay away for fear of straining tensions further. The White House said the president was expected to meet with law enforcement and tour “property affected by recent riots."
"I am concerned your presence will only hinder our healing. I am concerned your presence will only delay our work to overcome division and move forward together,” Evers wrote in a letter to Trump.
Trump insisted his appearance could “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." He was expected to take credit for calling in the National Guard — an act taken by Evers — and for surging federal law enforcement to the city to restore the peace. The White House said Trump was not going to meet with Blake's family.
“I am a tremendous fan of law enforcement and I want to thank law enforcement,” Trump told Fox News in an interview Monday night. “They've done a good job."
Trump suggested that some police officers “choke” when faced with challenging situations and compared them to golfers who “miss a 3-foot putt.”
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 — you probably would've been killed.”
Biden saw Trump's impact far differently, accusing the president of “poisoning” the nation's values.
In a statement after Trump's news conference but before his Fox News remarks, Biden said: “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.”
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 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.”
In Pittsburgh, Biden resoundingly condemned violent protesters and called for their prosecution — addressing a key Trump critique.
“It's lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted,” Biden said. And he leaned on his own 47-year career in politics to defend himself against Republican attacks.
“You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family's story," he said. "Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
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.
Worried Democrats, including some inside his own campaign, have pushed Biden to deal with the violence head on and at greater length, though he had previously condemned it. With Trump pounding the issue in his convention speech, which was then followed by more bloodshed over the weekend, many in Biden's party, still shell-shocked by the 2016 loss, urged Biden to get ahead of the rare issue that has broken through the national focus on the pandemic.
Biden declared that even as Trump is “trying to scare America,” what's really causing the nation's fear is Trump's own failures.
“You want to talk about fear? They're afraid they're going to get COVID, they're afraid they're going to get sick and die,” Biden said.