The president has been widely criticised for his response to the demonstrations, preferring tweets to a national address
Donald Trump was taken to the secure White House bunker, usually reserved for times of war or terrorist attacks, in the midst of noisy protests on Friday about the killing of George Floyd by police, and sporadic clashes close to the presidential complex’s perimeter.
According to several accounts by unnamed officials, Trump spent nearly an hour sequestered in the austere suite of hardened underground rooms designed for use in grave emergencies, and in which the then vice-president, Dick Cheney, took shelter during the 9/11 attacks.
The decision to move the president to the bunker was attributed to US Secret Service officers tasked with protecting him. It was taken as chants from protesters in nearby Lafayette Park could be heard in the White House, and Secret Service and DC and park police were required to push back demonstrators from barriers close to the White House, some of whom were throwing stones and water bottles.
The decision to take Trump to the bunker, first reported in the New York Times, preceded the turning off of external lights at the White House during further protests on Sunday, and has inevitably reinforced the sense of a president under siege.
Largely unheard from except for the stream of predictably accusatory and inflammatory tweets, Trump did, however, condemn Floyd’s killing in a speech marking the SpaceX launch in Florida on Saturday.
The White House and Secret Service remarked that they did not comment on security protocols and decisions or the means and methods of protective operations. The bunker is hardened to withstand the force of a passenger jet crashing into the White House.
The incident provoked a stream of derisive comments on social media, comparing Trump unfavourably both to the presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, who visited protesters and to the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. The hashtag “#bunkerboy” became a trending term on Twitter.
Greg Sargent, who writes the Plum Line blog for the Washington Post, wrote: “President of the United States cowering in fear of delivering a national address while instead issuing deranged tweets from his underground bunker somehow persuades himself that the world is laughing at someone else.”
The activist and author Amy Siskind was equally scathing. “Trump hiding out in a bunker Friday, and shutting off the lights at the White House Sunday – both over a few hundred protesters – will be forever remembered as defining moments of his presidency when he was revealed as a coward, not the strongman he advertised.”
Colin Hanks, the actor son of Tom Hanks, described the incident as a metaphor for Trump’s presidency.
“Trump is not leader. He KNOWS it in his bones. He is a coward. Turning off the lights, pretending no one is home while hiding in a bunker. There is no better metaphor for his, and his entire administration’s failures. The election is in seven months. VOTE. HIM. OUT.”
Trump, who has tweeted encouraging the use of lethal force against “looters”, and warned protesters outside the White House of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons”, has told advisers he worries about his safety, while both privately and publicly praising the work of the Secret Service.
By Monday Trump was calling for “law and order” and blaming far-left agitators for a sixth straight night of violent nationwide protests.
After his visit to the space Launch in Florida on Saturday, Trump returned to a White House under virtual siege, with protesters, some violent, gathered just a few hundred yards away through much of the night. Demonstrators returned on Sunday afternoon, facing off against police at Lafayette Park into the evening.
“The president and his family were rattled by their experience on Friday night, according to several advisers,” the Times report said.
Trump has been widely criticised for his response to the protests that have rocked the nation since video of Floyd’s death began spreading on social media.
Despite days of peaceful protests and violent clashes with police in some of America’s major cities, Trump has not addressed the nation and has repeatedly sent inflammatory messages over Twitter.
Late on Friday, Trump tweeted that protesters could have been attacked with dogs and weapons wielded by the US Secret Service and accused the DC mayor for supposedly not providing police to protect the White House.
“They let the ‘protesters’ scream and rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them,” Trump said.
“If they had [breached the fence],” the president continued, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.”
The president has spoken to George Floyd’s grieving family, but, according to Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd, the conversation was brief. “He didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak,” Floyd told MSNBC.