WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Saturday claimed that many Secret Service agents were “just waiting for action” and ready to unleash “the most vicious dogs, and the most ominous weapons, I have ever seen” if protesters angered by his response to George Floyd’s death had crossed the White House’s security fence.
In a series of tweets hours after hundreds of demonstrators had massed outside the White House and scraped with officers in riot gear, Trump belittled them, doubted their allegiance to Floyd’s memory, said they were only out “to cause trouble” and were “professionally managed.” He offered no evidence to back his assertions, and the president even seemed to invite supporters to make their presence felt: “Tonight, I understand, is MAGA NIGHT AT THE WHITE HOUSE???”
Trump said he had “watched every move” from inside the executive mansion and “couldn’t have felt more safe” as the Secret Service let the protesters carry on, “but whenever someone … got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on then, hard — didn’t know what hit them.” The president also directed social media criticism at the mayors of Washington and Minneapolis.
The Secret Service said in a statement Saturday that six protesters were arrested and “multiple” officers were injured. There were no details on the charges or nature of the injuries.
Floyd is the black man who was being held in handcuffs when he died Monday in Minneapolis after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air. Protests have erupted in U.S. cities in the days since.
Trump’s reference to “vicious dogs” potentially being sicced on protesters revisits images from the civil rights movement when marchers faced snarling police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses.
In contrast with the president’s tweets, the Secret Service said it “respects the right to assemble and we ask that individuals do so peacefully for the safety of all.”
Trump’s tweets came hours before he planned to leave for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to take another crack at witnessing the first launch on American soil in nearly a decade of astronauts into space. He visited Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, but the launch had to be canceled because of the weather.
Muriel Bowser, mayor of the nation’s capital, responded to the president by saying that “while he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism.” She also appealed for people in the District of Columbia and across the country “to exercise great restraint even while this President continues to try to divide us.”
In protests that stretched past midnight, people hurled pieces of bricks, bottles and other objects at Secret Service and U.S. Park Police officers who were in riot gear behind barricades around the White House. Protesters at times kicked and punched officers and wrestled over the barricades.
The crowd of hundreds chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Say his name: George Floyd.”
As some in the crowd grew more aggressive, police deployed pepper spray to keep them back and maintain a perimeter of officers around the White House. Fellow demonstrators came to the aid of protesters who were sprayed, their eyes red and puffy, offering bottles of milk and water to splash on their faces.
By the end of the night, the protesters had stolen about 15 barricades and left police to form a line of officers holding riot shields to keep back the swelling crowd. At one point, the protesters were able to gain control of an officer’s shield and set it ablaze before trying to toss it back at the line of officers. Police used a smoke device to quickly stop them.
The protest went on for hours before police declared the gathering “unlawful” and ordered everyone to leave Lafayette Square, a seven-acre public park located directly north of the White House. Dozens of officers pushed forward with their shields and fired off streams of pepper spray at protesters.
“Out of the park or you will be sprayed,” an officer shouted at the crowd.
As the officers continued to push forward through the park, some protesters broke the bricks from the pavement and hurled chunks at the officers.
On Thursday, as violence broke out in Minneapolis, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump later said his comments had been misconstrued. “Frankly it means when there’s looting, people get shot and they die,” he said.
AP video journalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.