Trump calls governors facing unrest 'weak' and 'fools,' urges stronger police tactics

"You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time,” the president said, according to a person listening to a White House call with the nation's governors.
President Donald Trump speaks at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020.
According to a source on the call, Trump was “annoyed” with the governors for their response to the protests and urged law enforcement to crack down and make more arrests.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

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By Geoff Bennett, Shannon Pettypiece and Monica Alba

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday lashed out at governors during a White House videoconference, telling them that “most of you are weak” after states grappled with another night of anger and unrest following the killing of George Floyd last week.

In audio of the call obtained by NBC News, Trump berated governors for their response to the protests, repeatedly criticizing New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and urged law enforcement to crack down and make more arrests.

"You have to arrest people, you have to try people, you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you'll never see this stuff again," Trump said on the call.

Trump called the governors "fools" and expressed anger with Democratic mayors in particular over the protests and unrest ravaging cities nationwide. He was described by one person on the call as “losing it.”

"You have to dominate. If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time, they're gonna run over you, you're gonna look like a bunch of jerks,” the president said.

The president also called the initial response in Minnesota “weak and pathetic” and called the state a "laughingstock all over the world."

Trump focused primarily on "antifa," or anti-fascists, and Occupy Wall Street, which he said was handled well by comparison.

"This is like Occupy Wall Street. It was a disaster. Until one day somebody said, that's enough," Trump said.

Attorney General Bill Barr told the governors that the Justice Department believes protestors are heading to other states with less of a law enforcement presence "where they can go and overwhelm the local police forces." Barr said there needs to be a focus on stopping "professional instigators and the leadership group."

During the call, Trump claimed to have intelligence showing who the “bad actors” and professional instigators are, though he did not elaborate.

Trump also asked states to enact laws against flag burning saying the federal government would back them up if they did.

The White House billed the event as a “video teleconference with governors, law enforcement, and national security officials on keeping American communities safe.”

Several governors pushed back on Trump's narrative, including J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a Democrat, who told Trump he was "extraordinarily concerned about the rhetoric that's been used by you. It’s been inflammatory."

Maine Gov. Janet Mills, also a Democrat, said she was concerned about the president visiting her state this week because of security issues. Trump later said that the governor's concerns made it more likely he would go to the state.

"You know, she's tried to talk me out of it, I think she probably talked me into it," Trump said. "She just doesn't understand me very well."

Maine is home to Puritan Medical Products, the company the administration compelled through the Defense Production Act to produce coronavirus testing swabs.

Trump’s response to the unrest has been to call for stronger law enforcement rather than calling for calm or addressing the concerns about police brutality and racism that many protestors say drove them to come out. Critics say an escalation in force would exacerbate already high tensions between protestors and the police.

After another night of protests led to fires and vandalism blocks from the White House, Trump spent Monday morning on Twitter blaming the unrest on antifa and accusing staffers of former Vice President Joe Biden of “working to get the anarchists out of jail.”

Trump had no public events scheduled for Monday, after not appearing in public on Sunday.

Trump’s advisers have been divided over what role the president should take in responding to the widest unrest the country has seen in decades. Some say the president should focus his message on Floyd, the black man who died last week at the hands of Minneapolis police, and urge calm.

Others say the top priority is stopping the violence and looting that have taken place in some areas, arguing that the best path to that end is strong police tactics, not presidential speeches.

Peter Alexander and Alex Moe contributed.