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On Trump's watch, all crises 'should never have happened'

Analysis: The president has a distancing refrain for crises that occur during his presidency, whether it's George Floyd's death or the coronavirus or rising international tensions.
Image: President Donald Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 21, 2020.
President Trump at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House on April 21, 2020.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is facing a crisis. And it should never have happened.

Whether it’s the death of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest, the growing body count from the coronavirus outbreak, or international emergencies, from Venezuela to North Korea, Trump has settled on a tactic: Declare that the event “should never have happened,” and find some culprit who failed to prevent it.

On Saturday, Trump called the death of George Floyd “a grave tragedy” that has filled Americans “with horror, anger and grief.”

“It should never have happened,” Trump said while at the Kennedy Space Center to view the SpaceX astronaut launch during a weekend when protests against police brutality and racism turned chaotic in cities across the country.

On the same day, Trump made a similar comment about the coronavirus crisis: “It should have never happened."

The phrase has become a regular technique for Trump to acknowledge a crisis and deflect attention or accountability for his handling of the situation by finding a culprit on whom to focus his fire.

Its latest reappearance has come amid Trump's reluctance to deliver a speech to the nation addressing the pain and anguish over Floyd's death, instead lashing out at governors on a call Monday as "weak" and "fools" for not clamping down harder on demonstrators. Allies admit that unifying rhetoric isn't his strong suit.

In the case of Floyd, Trump blasted “rioters, looters and anarchists” for exacerbating the situation and blamed the violence on “antifa and other radical left-wing groups.”

In the case of the coronavirus, Trump’s culprit has been China, where the disease is believed to have originated: “It should have never come out of China, but it did. They didn’t stop it,” he said. “It spread to the U.S. It should have never happened.”

While Trump didn't instigate either crisis, his handling of both has come under a microscope and will be judged by voters in his re-election battle this fall against apparent Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. It's common for presidents to face crises they didn't create, and most respond with words and actions aimed at calming the waters. Trump has instead been unique in his tendency to pour rhetorical fuel on the fire.

He has responded to the Floyd protests by inflaming tensions and fueling feuds with Democratic mayors and governors, all while threatening to use “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on protesters who come close to breaching the White House fence.

The president has faced criticism for a delayed emergency response to COVID-19 as he downplayed the virus early on and touted unscientific cures. He has picked fights with political rivals and the press to rile up supporters while only occasionally publicly grieving the lives lost, even when the U.S. total recently topped 100,000.

"President Trump is not an empathic president or a mourner in chief. It’s not in his DNA. He’s very good at connecting with voters on a certain level, but he’s not a unifier," said Dan Eberhart, a Trump donor and major Republican financier. "Trump is far more divisive than past presidents. His strength is stirring up his base, not calming the waters."

On May 7, Trump made a similar remark in response to the Justice Department's decision to drop the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contact with Russia. The plea came in connection with the Russia investigation that haunted the early part of Trump’s presidency.

“This should never have happened in this country,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

After the department questioned the justification of the investigation into Flynn, the president claimed that his former adviser “was targeted by the Obama administration, and he was targeted in order to try and take down a president.”

In March 2019, as tensions escalated in Venezuela and the U.S. pressured President Nicolás Maduro to step aside, Trump knocked “past administrations” for the worsening political situation there. “This should never have happened in Venezuela,” Trump said.

Using the same refrain, Trump blamed his predecessors for North Korea and the Middle East.

“I’ve inherited a mess, between North Korea and all of the problems we have all over the world — the entire Middle East and Venezuela. These are things that never — they never should have happened,” Trump said. “They never should have [been] allowed to get to this point.”

The tactic has enabled Trump to skate through crises that weren't top-of-mind for voters. But with the Floyd backlash growing and the coronavirus continuing to hammer the economy, some doubt that it's viable.

"It’s truly hard to see a path to victory for Trump that runs through the twin realities of a depressed economy and these escalating riots," Eberhart said.