President Donald Trump on Friday tried to walk back a Twitter threat to respond with deadly force to three days of violent protests in Minneapolis over the police killing of an unarmed black man.
“Looting leads to shooting … I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means,” Trump said on Twitter, hours after the social network for the first time slapped a warning on one of his Tweets for “glorifying violence.”
Trump ignored the original tweet and the Minneapolis unrest during a press conference Friday afternoon, during which he announced the U.S. would pull out of the World Health Organization and take punitive actions against China over the COVID-19 pandemic and undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and some congressional Democrats denounced the initial threat, which warned “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Trump signed an executive order on Thursday threatening new regulations on social media firms.
He relies heavily on Twitter to bring his message directly to his 80 million followers on the site, but also has repeatedly accused it and other social media sites of censuring conservatives.
Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, has a history of inflaming racial tensions. He blamed “both sides” for violence between white supremacists and left-wing counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and has called some immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border rapists.
His early Friday tweet suggested that security forces would open fire on looters to curtail unrest over the death of George Floyd, a black man seen on video gasping for breath while a white police officer knelt on his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Protests over Floyd’s death and other killings like it have spread to cities including Los Angeles and Denver, with a protest expected in New York on Friday.
Trump said in his tweet: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
The phrase about shooting dates back to U.S. police crackdowns on civil rights in the 1960s.
Democrats accused Trump of making the situation worse.
“This is no time for incendiary tweets. It’s no time to encourage violence,” Biden said in remarks streamed online. “This is a national crisis and we need real leadership right now. Leadership that will bring everyone to the table so that we can take measures to root out systemic racism.”
Democratic Representative Cedric Richmond, a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told Reuters he was unsurprised by Trump’s initial response.
“It’s typical Trump trying to change the conversation instead of talking about the injustice and vulnerability African-Americans feel on a day-to-day basis,” Richmond said.
Trump issued his tweet amid days of turmoil in Minneapolis, which was engulfed in a third night of arson, looting and vandalism as protesters vented their rage over Floyd’s death.
The four police officers involved in Floyd’s death were fired before Chauvin’s arrest. Trump has condemned the killing. Attorney General William Barr said on Friday the Department of Justice, including the FBI, was conducting an independent investigation regarding civil rights laws.
Trump’s re-election campaign has identified Minnesota as a state he could win in 2020 after narrowly losing it in 2016.
With additional reporting by Robert Pozarycki.