Donald Trump has provoked outrage by saying that he hoped George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police has sparked widespread protests, was looking down from heaven and saying it is a “great day for equality.”
During a press conference on Friday, Mr Trump praised law enforcement for cracking down on largely peaceful protests in Washington and other cities across the US, and said Floyd would be proud.
“Hopefully George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country, is a great day for him,” Mr Trump told reporters on Friday. “It’s a great day for everybody . . . It is a great, great day in terms of equality.”
An ebullient Mr Trump was speaking after the US economy unexpectedly added 2.5m jobs in May. He said the bounceback in the employment situation was the “greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African American community”.
However, the US labour department said the unemployment rate for African Americans in fact rose to 16.8 per cent from 16.7 per cent in May, even as the national unemployment rate declined to 13.3 per cent.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, who will challenge Mr Trump in November’s presidential election, said the president’s comments were “despicable.”
“George Floyd’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’, have echoed all across this nation and quite frankly around the world,” Mr Biden said. “For the president to try to put any other words in the mouth of George Floyd, I frankly think is despicable.”
Doing so on a day when black unemployment rose “tells you everything you need to know about this man,” Mr Biden added.
Kamala Harris, a Democratic California senator who is one of the leading candidates to be Mr Biden’s running mate, excoriated Mr Trump over his comments.
“.@realDonaldTrump, keep George Floyd’s name out of your mouth until you can say Black Lives Matter,” she tweeted after his press conference.
Friday marked the 11th day of protests over the death of Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis when a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Mr Trump has come under heavy criticism for portraying the protesters as anarchists and criminals and downplaying the peaceful nature of most of the demonstrations.
Earlier on Friday, the Washington city government painted “Black Lives Matter” in huge yellow letters down one of the main streets in the capital, just blocks away from the White House. The city also renamed the street where some of the protesters were forcibly removed on Monday as “Black Lives Matter Plaza”.
Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has asked Mr Trump to “withdraw all extraordinary law enforcement and military presence” in Washington — which has less control of its own security situation because it is not a state — during the protests over Floyd’s death.
After skirmishes on Monday, when police used chemical agents and rubber bullets to clear an area near the White House to allow Mr Trump to walk to a church to take have a photo taken while holding a Bible, the situation in the city has remained mainly calm as huge numbers of protesters have come out to march near the White House and around the National Mall.
Despite the plea from Ms Bowser, Mr Trump on Friday renewed calls for states to “dominate” their streets, as he urged governors to request the National Guard be deployed in their states even after an intense backlash from former senior military officials to the presence of soldiers on the streets.
“I’m suggesting to some of these governors that are too proud . . . don’t be proud, get the job done,” Mr Trump said. “You’ll end up looking much better in the end.”
Mr Trump has been fiercely criticised since threatening to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to allow him to deploy the military over the objections of state governors. Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, publicly contradicted Mr Trump and said there was no need for such a move.
Mr Trump has also been chastised by several members of his own Republican party as well as former military and defence leaders.
Jim Mattis, a retired general who was defence secretary for the first two years of the Trump administration, gave a blistering critique of Mr Trump, calling him an immature leader who made “a mockery” of the constitution.
Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told NPR that the president’s threat to use the military to quell the protests was “dangerous”.
Another former chairmen, Mike Mullen, said he was “sickened” to see National Guard and other security personnel being used to “forcibly and violently clear a path” for Mr Trump’s church photo.
William McRaven, a retired admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, told MSNBC there was “nothing morally right” about how protesters had been dispersed on Monday.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi