'Can't you just shoot them?': Former defense secretary says Trump wanted violence against Floyd protesters

·Senior Writer
·2-min read

President Donald Trump wanted U.S. troops to shoot protesters during racial justice demonstrations in 2020, according to a new book from former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“Can't you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?” Esper quotes Trump saying. The then president allegedly made the remark as protesters descended on Washington, D.C., following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer. The quote was first reported by Axios.

President Donald Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church for a photo op after peaceful protesters were forcibly removed from the area on June 1, 2020, in Washington. Walking behind Trump from left are, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Donald Trump heads to St. John's Church near the White House on June 1, 2020, after protesters were forcibly removed from the area. With him are, from left, Attorney General William Barr, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Days after Floyd was killed, Trump tweeted, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to [Minnesota] Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

The message was later flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.”

In his book “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” released last year, reporter Michael Bender relayed similar stories from the White House.

“That’s how you’re supposed to handle these people,” Trump told military and law enforcement officials while showing them videos of police violence toward protesters, according to Bender. “Crack their skulls!”

Protesters take a knee and raise their fists in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020.
Protesters take a knee and raise their fists in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump reportedly said he wanted police to “beat the f***” out of the protesters, according to Bender, saying “just shoot them” on multiple occasions. When he received pushback from staffers, Trump said, “Well, shoot them in the leg — or maybe the foot. But be hard on them!”

While Trump had discussed invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops on U.S. soil to contain the protests, Esper publicly broke with him in the days after Floyd’s death, saying at a Pentagon briefing that action “should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a June 3 press conference following Esper’s comments that “the Insurrection Act is a tool available. The president has the sole authority, and if needed, he will use it.” Trump never invoked the act, but Attorney General William Barr did deploy a number of Justice Department officers in riot gear at the protests.

Trump fired Esper in November 2020, two months before he was set to leave office following his loss to Joe Biden.

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