In the first two weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, Republican leaders responded by encouraging the shooting of protesters; calling for the military to deploy to American cities to crack down on “nihilist criminals”; and describing violence at demonstrations initiated by police as “provocation that was created deliberately for national television.”
But as the country enters its third week of indignation, Republican lawmakers and President Trump have responded with delayed vows of reform — or at least lip service that shows they’ve realized that the mass unrest is a new political reality.
Arkansas senator Tom Cotton’s comment on Tuesday is a bold example of the latter phenomenon. On Tuesday, Cotton reportedly told fellow Republican senators that “young black men have a very different experience with law enforcement in this nation than white people and that’s their impression and experience and we need to be sensitive to that and do all we can to change it.” Cotton’s understanding of the black “impression” of police brutality in a country where African-American men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men has transformed in the past week. On Sunday, he was quoted in Politico saying that he does “not think you can paint with a broad brush and say there’s systemic racism in the criminal justice system in America.” Days before, he urged President Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to stamp out protests in an op-ed in the New York Times, while misrepresenting the strength of “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa infiltrating protest marches.” But the senator’s near-acknowledgement of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system may not be as important as his financial interest in the past week: According to the Washington Post, Cotton has quintupled his usual fundraising numbers since his contribution to the Times, despite running unopposed in November.
As House Democrats answer to pressure from the left to defund the police with a moderate bill pushing policing reform, Senate Republicans are planning their own delayed response. On Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he had deputized South Carolina senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the chamber, to “lead a group that is working on a proposal to allow us to respond to the obvious racial discrimination that we’ve seen on our television screens over the last two weeks.” To keep the White House in the loop, Scott met with senior adviser Jared Kushner on Tuesday, who, as usual, may be over-leveraged and under-informed. On Monday, Kushner described police reform as if it had been enacted just by having conversations around the topic: “The law-enforcement community heard the cries from the community, saw the injustices in the system that needed to be fixed, and they responded by coming together to fix it.”
According to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Trump wants national reform for police accountability and use of force “sooner rather than later,” a weak signal that the president may be ready to change his historic approach to law enforcement and criminal justice. But it’s all too possible that his reformist spirit may get lost in the usual chaos of the administration, like his attempts at reforming gun-control legislation, health care, and vaping — which all fell by the wayside as immediate public pressure subsided and industry interest endured. Despite advisers’ efforts to help prepare the president for the enormous task at hand, he has not been able to maintain focus: On Tuesday, Trump forwarded an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory accusing a 75-year-old man who was brutalized by a police officer in Buffalo of being an “ANTIFA provocateur.”
Perhaps the most important sign of the Republican response to come was the reported decision for White House adviser Stephen Miller to write a forthcoming presidential speech on race relations. Seven months ago, leaked examples of the adviser’s correspondence showed he was even more well-versed in white nationalist rhetoric than previously known. It may not turn out to be a concessional moment from a man — sued by the Department of Justice for allegedly discriminating against black renters at Trump properties — whose effective entrance into the public conversations about criminal justice began with a highly publicized call for New York City officials to ignore accused offenders’ “constant chants of ‘police brutality.’”