STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The president's response to the protests has triggered widespread criticism. James Mattis, his former defense secretary, denounced the president's divisiveness this week. Mattis spoke up after police forced back peaceful protesters near the White House for the president's photo opportunity. Retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey rarely speaks out on politically charged issues. But in a talk with NPR, he said he had to speak out against the president's threat to turn the military against protesters.
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MARTIN DEMPSEY: The idea that the president would overwhelm the - take charge of the situation using the military was troubling to me.
INSKEEP: Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says she is now struggling with whether she can vote for the president in November. The president has responded not with messages of unity but by embracing further conflict, calling Mattis overrated and saying he will campaign against Murkowski. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe and NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas have been covering the administration response. They're both with us. Good morning, guys.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Ayesha, I want to start with you. How, if at all, has the president addressed the underlying issue here, the concern about police brutality?
RASCOE: He has acknowledged the pain that African Americans feel about this, but that's about it. He spent most of his time this week talking about cracking down on protests that he describes as violent and being led by extreme leftist groups without much evidence. We saw him deliver that message symbolically on Monday when people protesting across the street from the White House were cleared out so he could walk across the street for a photo op. And he's defended that move since. He was interviewed by his former press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Newsmax, the conservative channel. And Spicer asked him about his message. Here's a bit of that.
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SEAN SPICER: Do you think that right now the nation needs you to express that same sort of comfort and healing that some people need to heal?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Right now, I think the nation needs law and order because you have a bad group of people out there, and they're using George Floyd, and they're using a lot of other people to try and do some bad things.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mommy.
RASCOE: And, you know, it's been all about law and order for President Trump. We have not seen the kind of traditional unifying message that most presidents would traditionally aim for at a time like this. And I'm sorry. I think my daughter is knocking on the door, so I apologize for that.
INSKEEP: No, don't apologize at all. I'm delighted and have her come into the conversation at some point. We're all working from home and so that's totally fine. Welcome and good morning to her. Ryan, I want to ask you about Attorney General William Barr. He's been so personally involved in this. It appears that he personally ordered police to push back protesters on Monday for the president's photo opportunity, just an incredible tactical intervention by the attorney general of the United States. What is he saying about the protests?
LUCAS: Well, he's said many of the protesters nationwide have peacefully taken to the streets to express their anger, their frustrations. He said some people, though, have used the unrest to engage in lawlessness, such as some of the looting that we've seen. And then at some demonstrations, there have been what he called extremist agitators who he said are trying to hijack otherwise peaceful protests for their own sinister purposes. Here's a bit of what he said.
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WILLIAM BARR: We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions, have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity. And we are also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence.
LUCAS: Now, FBI Director Christopher Wray added a bit more on the extremist groups. He said the people who are ginning up violence and their motivations are not monolithic. So he said that who they are and what's driving them varies from city to city and sometimes even from night to night within a particular city.
INSKEEP: Which is certainly true if you have covered protests for a while. You do get different people with different agendas. But haven't there even been right-wing organizations who've been accused of involvement in trying to instigate violence in these protests?
LUCAS: There certainly have been allegations against right-wing groups. You get to a question of what sort of evidence we've seen, and we haven't really seen much evidence. Barr and others were asked about this yesterday. What Barr said is that - he basically described this as a witch's brew of extremists agitators. We have heard him and the president repeatedly blame, as we did in that clip, antifa, or antifascist ideology, for much of this violence. But Barr said yesterday that there's a lot of disinformation, people posing as members of different groups, some people without any particular ideology other than, say, anarchy and some who want to drive this country to civil war.
There's one notable case that has been charged and therefore is in the public record. That was brought this week against three men in Nevada who allegedly have ties to a right-wing extremist movement. Prosecutors say that these men were planning violence, including preparing Molotov cocktails to throw during protests over Floyd's death. So we do have in the public record evidence of alleged right-wing extremist agitators.
INSKEEP: OK. So if the actual problem or some little part of it is actually right wingers, why, Ayesha, would the attorney general elevate and focus almost exclusively on alleged left-wing demonstrators?
RASCOE: It's not really - I mean, it seems like what the president and what the attorney general have wanted to focus on is this idea of - that this is left-wing extremists and this idea that it is - and really making this more of a partisan issue. Trump wants to shore up support from his base. And, remember, he was brought to office on this very tough law and order message, clean up crime and focusing on unlawful aspects of protests by, you know, left-wing groups is a way of him - is a way for him to make the case that he's keeping his base safe from crime. And he's also been a big supporter of police organizations. He was endorsed by the biggest police organization in 2016. And we've seen the White House this week really want to renew their focus on support for law enforcement, describing police officers as victims of violence during the protests. And Trump says he wants more funding for law enforcement.
INSKEEP: We have been listening to NPR's Ryan Lucas, NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, with a cameo by Ayesha's daughter. And thanks to all three of you. It's - I appreciate your insights.
RASCOE: Thank you.
LUCAS: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: And we'll continue our coverage of this issue.
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