President Donald Trump is seeking to tie Joe Biden to activists’ calls to “defund the police” in an attempt to paint his likely 2020 opponent as weak on crime and vilify Democrats pushing for police reform, even though Biden hasn’t embraced the slogan.
Two weeks of protests over the death of a black man in Minneapolis police custody have Trump on the defensive and are giving Democrats an opening to pursue curbs on law enforcement supported by their diverse base.
But Trump is trying to turn the defunding demands into a political liability for Biden and grab the support of voters alarmed by scenes of protests, along with law enforcement groups that have been traditionally popular in the U.S.
Activists who call for defunding police take a range of positions, including shifting money to programs to address economic and social ills that disproportionately affect blacks and other people of color. But the rallying cry evokes the idea of abolishing police, providing a potent and tweetable attack on Democrats, even those like Biden who haven’t embraced it.
The demand to defund police gained traction in Minneapolis on Sunday, when a veto-proof majority of the City Council pledged to “begin the process” of dismantling its police force. Council members, who signed the pledge before hundreds of onlookers, said they didn’t have immediate plans for what would replace the force but would consult with the community on a new structure for public safety.
Trump and Biden’s dueling approaches over the protests and police brutality will be on display Monday. The president plans to host a roundtable with law enforcement at the White House while the Democratic candidate travels to Houston to meet with the family of George Floyd, the man killed in Minneapolis, before his funeral.
Biden Rises in Polls
Trump’s attack on Biden comes as the former vice president holds a 7.2% lead in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, and is leading by 3 points or more in the three Rust Belt states that gave Trump the White House — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — and by small margins in Florida, Arizona, Ohio and North Carolina.
Trump is attempting to force policy makers and the public to side with either police or those protesting racially motivated brutality and Floyd’s death — a choice Democrats say is false. The debate comes as congressional Democrats are preparing to unveil sweeping legislation that would make it easier to prosecute police misconduct.
Trump has repeatedly claimed over the past few days that Biden has been dragged to the left by “radical” Democrats who want to gut the nation’s police departments. It’s an argument that conflicts with Trump’s past criticism of Biden’s support for 1994 crime legislation, which has been blamed for sending a disproportionate number of black Americans to prison.
Biden has voiced support for demonstrators marching against police brutality and racism and has proposed overhauling police tactics, but he has not supported defunding law enforcement. His criminal-justice reform plan even calls for a $300 million investment in community-oriented policing.
Biden’s campaign declined to comment on Trump’s effort to tie the Democrat to the “defund the police” campaign.
Biden’s Approach on Police
Biden has promised to create a national police oversight commission during his first 100 days in office. He has also urged police departments across the country to change their training and hiring practices to identify problem officers and outlaw violent tactics, such as choke holds.
“Most police officers meet the highest standards of their profession, which is all the more reason that bad cops should be dealt with severely and swiftly,” Biden wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed published on Friday.
House and Senate Democrats plan to introduce a bill on Monday that includes several of Biden’s proposed reforms, and would also curb the practice of “qualified immunity” for police activity. Doing so would open the door to more civil lawsuits over misconduct, according to a Democratic aide. It would also tie federal funding to state and local police to anti-bias training and the use of de-escalation tactics.
“I don’t believe that you should disband police departments. But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities,” Democratic Representative Karen Bass, a co-sponsor of the bill, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The president risks misreading the moment with his get-tough approach, surveys show.
Voters nationwide said by a 2-to-1 margin that they are more concerned by police actions in Floyd’s death than violence at some protests, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday.
A CBS News poll released last week showed 57% of Americans believe police generally treat white people better than black people. The public disapproved of Trump’s handling of the protests and the events surrounding Floyd’s killing by an 11-point margin.
There is also bipartisan support for police reforms, a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found. Almost nine in 10 Americans support training police on how to de-escalate conflicts and avoid using violence, while 80% back an early warning system to identify “problematic” officers.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, an ally of the president, even said last week his panel would look to build on similar reforms proposed during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president.
Siding with Police
The president is betting more voters will side with law enforcement. Police officers were second only to school principals in terms of the public’s confidence, according to a Pew Research Center survey from last fall. Almost two-thirds of Americans oppose cutting funding police funding and just 16% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans support the idea, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll.
And there is a partisan divide in how Americans view the reaction to Floyd’s killing: 48% of Republicans said they were more concerned with violence at protests than how Floyd was killed, while 81% of Democrats said the opposite, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The Trump campaign has seized on criticism of Biden from some police union leaders, who expressed concern over his embrace of police reform. Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, told Politico this week that Biden “kept moving to the left and fell off the deep end.”
“The ‘Defund the Police’ movement is growing in Joe Biden’s party and he is forced to own it,” said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “Police organizations have noticed that Biden has abandoned them as he moved far to the left to appease the most radical elements in his party.”
For some activists, the call to “defund the police,” seen on social media and on protests signs, means essentially abolishing modern police departments as they are currently formed. But others say they are not seeking to get rid of police departments, but rather want cities to cut their budgets and redirect the funding.
“When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is invest in the resources that our communities need,” Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter activist group, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
In Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to allocate as much as $150 million of his police budget to causes that would help the black community, the city spends more than half its total discretionary fund on law enforcement.
The “Black Lives Matter” slogan itself was recently viewed as controversial, but has now been embraced by mainstream figures and major businesses, including the National Football League. In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, had it painted in giant letters on a street near the White House. Protesters painted “Defund the police” next to Bowser’s message.
“Seven years ago people thought that Black Lives Matter was a radical idea, and yet Black Lives Matter is now a household name and it’s something being discussed across kitchen tables all over the world,” Garza said.
Still, few elected Democrats have voiced support for the “defund the police” movement. Although it has long been backed by activist groups, it attracted attention in political circles last week after Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, posted the slogan on Twitter.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, was booed on Saturday by a group of protesters after he didn’t endorse abolishing his city’s police department.
— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein, and Erik Wasson