"I am ... an ally of all peaceful protesters."
- President Trump, in remarks at the Rose Garden, June 1
These remarks from the president came just as authorities were using rubber bullets and chemical gas to clear peaceful protesters outside the White House.
On Twitter the next morning, Trump boasted: "D.C. had no problems last night. Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination."
And before all that, he was on the phone lecturing the nation's governors and calling for 10-year prison sentences. "If you don't dominate, you're wasting your time," Trump said of the protests sparked by police violence against African Americans, according to leaked audio of the call. "They're going to run all over you. You'll look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate, and you have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go to jail for long periods of time."
An "ally of all peaceful protesters"? A scroll through recent history shows Trump supports protests that align with his politics and often denigrates those that don't.
- Trump voiced support for the "very fine people" he said were at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia, in 2017. He recently tweeted in support of protesters in Michigan — some armed with rifles — who opposed the state's lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. "These are very good people, but they are angry," Trump tweeted.
- The president threw his support behind the "yellow vest" protests in France, misleadingly tying them to one of his favorite targets, the Paris climate agreement, when they were actually about a gas tax hike and economic inequality. (Trump at one point falsely tweeted that French protesters were chanting, "We want Trump!")
- Trump also has a soft spot for protesters in Iran, often tweeting support for them and warning the Iranian regime — another frequent target — against committing abuses.
Now, let's review all the peaceful protests Trump has mocked, scorned or dismissed.
Trump was harshly critical of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who protested police killings of African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem before games, calling it "a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for."
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in 2016.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired, he's fired,'" Trump said at a 2017 campaign rally in Alabama. "You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn't be playing, you shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country," he told a Fox News interviewer in 2018.
Trump once asked his supporters to "knock the crap out" of protesters at a campaign rally and pledged to cover any legal fees. "So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?" he said on the day of the Iowa caucuses in 2016. "Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise." ("Maybe he should have been roughed up," Trump said about a different protester, who shouted "Black lives matter!" at a rally in 2015.)
Trump once tweeted that the U.S. president should stay out of what was perhaps the biggest peaceful protest at the time. "President Obama should stay out of the Hong Kong protests, we have enough problems in our own country! Can't even properly police White House," Trump tweeted in 2014 as pro-democracy demonstrations swelled in Hong Kong.
Barring Iran, the Trump administration has given the cold shoulder to protesters in Africa and the Middle East, Foreign Policy magazine reported. Trump has been "unambiguously siding with the region's autocratic rulers and leaving lower-level [U.S.] bureaucrats in his administration to deliver mild encouragement to the protesters," the magazine reported. "Asked this fall to comment on Egypt's most violent crackdown on protesters since the Arab Spring, Trump offered unconditional support for the country's leader, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom he once described as 'my favorite dictator.' "
To Sudan, for instance, the Trump administration was offering closer bilateral relations as the country's leaders were violently cracking down on dissent, as CNN reported.
Critics say some of the Trump administration's moves limit the right to peaceful protest. The Transportation Department released a proposal last year to treat some pipeline protests as a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. (Several groups have mounted protests for years against natural gas pipeline projects, which Trump effusively supports.)
The National Park Service in 2018 floated plans to close 80 percent of the White House sidewalk to protesters and increase costs for demonstrators, though that proposal was dropped amid bipartisan blowback.
The Pinocchio Test:
A U.S. president calling himself an "ally of all peaceful protesters" is the kind of peppy bromide that would have gone unnoticed by fact-checkers in previous administrations.
But with Trump, lo and behold, there's a record belying it. The president seems to show support for peaceful protesters only when their interests are aligned with his. Any others get a cold shoulder or fiery condemnation. Where he stands depends on where the protesters sit, thus earning the president an upside-down Pinocchio for his consistent flip-flopping on the merits of peaceful protests.
Salvador Rizzo wrote this piece for The Washington Post.