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President Trump Issues Divisive Statement On Race At Rose Garden Address

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What was the purpose of the president's remarks yesterday? The answer is not immediately apparent. He gave a speech. And the scene is important - he was standing in the Rose Garden, the backyard of the White House, a place where presidents hold official announcements and official ceremonies. And at the beginning, that's what this sounded like. The president announced measures against China as China cracks down on freedoms in Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China - no special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies.

INSKEEP: That was the beginning. But even more than usual, the president veered off topic, talking of crumbling highways, the Paris climate agreement. He read a list of baseless allegations against his Democratic opponent Joe Biden, said Biden plans to, quote, "abolish the suburbs" and make office buildings too cold - this according to the president. On the same day, the president gave an interview in which he pushed back on the fact that a Black person is statistically more likely to be shot by police. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is following all of this. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How unusual was yesterday?

KEITH: Well, this was certainly not a news conference, as billed; it was a rally speech disguised as an official announcement in the Rose Garden. He spent a lot of time talking about Joe Biden, said his name 31 times and, as you say, was really all over the place. At times, it was hard to tell exactly what he was talking about.

You know, a disciplined president of the United States who was truly trying to get reelected would come out, he would stay on message, he would talk about what he was there to talk about, answer a few questions and leave. Instead, President Trump essentially did this rally thing in the Rose Garden because, well, his campaign can't do rallies right now because of the coronavirus. He just had one canceled last weekend. And it is worth noting that coronavirus is now surging all over the country, and President Trump has had a really hard time getting any attacks on Biden to stick. They've been trying for months. You know, it seems attacks, political attacks, aren't really what Americans are looking to hear right now.

INSKEEP: Now, he also addressed a question of race. Before this White House event, he's talking to a CBS reporter Catherine Herridge. And she asks, why are African Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country? And here's how the president responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And so are white people - so are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE: Well, it's...

TRUMP: More white people, by the way - more white people.

INSKEEP: Let's fact-check that. Is that true?

KEITH: Well, it is true that more white people die at the hands of law enforcement, but there are a lot more white people in America. As a share of the population, African Americans are far more likely to be killed by the police, about twice as likely. And this is about more than numbers. President Trump, as many have been calling for police reform and racial justice, has taken another tack and is moving toward law and order, talking about law and order, which is something he comes back to a lot. And you know, he's really just trying to dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement.

INSKEEP: Is he still defending the Confederate flag?

KEITH: Indeed, he is. In that same interview, he said, quote, "I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they're not thinking of slavery." He says it's a free-speech thing. This puts him out of line with the state of Mississippi and NASCAR.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and most people in the country.

KEITH: Yes.

INSKEEP: Which raises a question about what the politics are of doing all of this.

KEITH: This is not strategic. President Trump is saying what he thinks, even if polling indicates that the majority of Americans disagree. So, you know, he is once again in a place where he is setting off a conversation about Trump and racism. And he's acting like someone who thinks his base wants to hear this sort of pro-white, pro-Confederate language. And he is running this reelection for the base, not for the broader American public. At the White House press conference yesterday, he was asked if he was worried about losing in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I think that the enthusiasm now is greater and may be far greater than it was in 2016. I think a lot of people don't want to talk about it. I think they're not going to say, hey, I'm for Trump; I'm for Trump. They don't want to go through the process. And I fully understand that because the process is not fair.

KEITH: He's talking about what he calls the silent majority. But pollsters I talked to say it is unlikely that such a silent majority really exists in the numbers that he needs. And as evidence, President Trump pointed to boat parades and yard signs and bikers, motorcyclists riding with his signs.

INSKEEP: There was some kind of boat parade but not that many voters on boats. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.