The scene that erupted in The Villages took place amid continuing unrest across the country over police brutality and racism after the May 25 killing of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer. Trump‘s tweets since Floyd‘s murder have continuously sparked outcry, most notably when he threatened to use military force against protesters, whom he called “thugs“ — asserting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.“
The post on Sunday was also Trump‘s latest brush with white nationalism, which critics say has been amplified under his presidency because of his inflammatory rhetoric, particularly on Twitter. In the past month Trump and his administration have been under fire for sharing videos, without context, that highlight racist messages and boost instances of a Black person clashing with a white person, one in a store and another at a subway station, to which Trump questioned: “Where are the protesters?“
In the video the president retweeted on Sunday, the pro-Trump parader twice exclaimed “white power” while holding his fist up; he was sitting next to another supporter chanting “Trump.” Another person, who appeared to be an anti-Trump protester, pointed toward him and responded: “There you go, white power.”
The golf-cart motorcade was met by anti-Trump seniors standing alongside the same road, who held counter-protester signs that read “Trump bigot and racist” and “Donald Trump white trash” and shouted profanities toward the supporters. One among the senior crowd called a supporter a “Nazi racist pig.”
Trump has often raised eyebrows over his posts and has previously retweeted white supremacists. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, reacted to his tweet on Sunday by drawing attention to how Trump called the Florida protesters “great,” just “like he did after Charlottesville.“
Biden was referring to the now-infamous “Unite the Right” rally that took place Aug. 11-12, 2017, where hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis carrying torches, weapons, and Confederate and Nazi flags stormed the college town of Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. The protest ended when one person was killed after confrontations ensued with counter-demonstrators, including those from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though he initially condemned the hate groups, Trump later received criticism after he ad-libbed that there were some “very fine people on both sides.”
“There were people in that rally — and I looked the night before — if you look, there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” the president said at the time. “I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones.”
Last month‘s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has also triggered the toppling of several monuments and memorials depicting Confederate leaders by protesters around the nation.
Trump has reinforced his support for the statues and has condemned their removal in recent weeks, calling protesters “terrorists,“ “anarchists” and “left-wing extremists.“ He issued an executive order on Friday for the Justice Department to prioritize prosecution of protesters who damage public monuments, and emphasized imprisonment of up to 10 years.
Trump’s post on Sunday drew attention from other top public officials, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who called the video “indefensible.”
“There’s no question: He should not have retweeted it,” Scott said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “He should just take it down.”
Scott, the only Black Republican in the upper chamber, recently offered police reform legislation that was blocked by Senate Democrats, who argued the bill did not go far enough to curb police misconduct. The House passed its own sweeping bill aimed at law enforcement reform Thursday evening.
CNN host Jake Tapper also asked Human and Health Services Secretary Alex Azar about the president’s post, after playing a clip of the video.
“I’ve not seen that video or that tweet,” Azar said. “But obviously, neither the president, his administration, nor I, would do anything to be supportive of white supremacy or anything that would support discrimination of any kind.”
Tapper asked him whether tweeting the video was a mistake, but Azar declined to comment further, repeating that he had not seen the video.
“Well, we just played it for you, but I’ll move on,” Tapper responded.
Trump has frequently claimed that he is “the least racist person“ when he is confronted for using or sharing language that is racist. Last July, he took to Twitter to say that his tweets imploring four freshman lawmakers to “go back“ to where they came from were “NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!“
More recently, the president has received backlash over his use of the slur “kung flu” to describe the coronavirus. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has defended the president‘s phrasing, contending that he “does not believe it‘s offensive to note that this virus came from China.“ In a break with the administration, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has disagreed with the use of the term.
After the Florida tweet on Sunday was deleted, a White House spokesman, Judd Deere, commented that Trump did not hear the supporter’s shouts of “white power,” which occur early in the video.
“President Trump is a big fan of The Villages,” Deere said in a statement. “He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”
The sprawling retirement community, located near Orlando, is heavily white and conservative — and therefore crucial to Trump’s reelection in Florida, a must-win state for him where the Real Clear Politics polling averages currently show him trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by 7 percentage points.
The Villages is in three Florida counties, but much of it is in relatively small Sumter County, where voters turn out at disproportionately higher rates than the rest of the state and disproportionately vote for Republicans.
In 2016, Florida’s Sumter County turnout rate was about 10 points higher than the state’s turnout rate. Trump won nearly 69 percent of the vote in 2016, a net 30,092 votes that accounted for almost 27 percent of his overall statewide victory margin of 112,911 statewide in Florida, which he carried by just 1.19 percentage points. Sumter County is 85 percent non-Hispanic white; according to census figures, whites are 53 percent of Florida’s overall population.
Marc Caputo and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.