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How Trump's Rhetoric On Crime Has Evolved Over Time


At the Republican National Convention, President Trump is presenting himself as tough on crime, as a leader keeping suburban residents safe from the violence that has played out in places like Portland, Chicago and last night in Kenosha. That message has been central to Trump's political rise. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe examines the evolution of the president's rhetoric on crime.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Even before Donald Trump became president, he was talking about law and order. Here he was four years ago.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country - 100% we will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.

RASCOE: Since then, he's used the words over and over again. This summer, as cities dealt with unrest and protests against police brutality, the message was impossible to escape.


TRUMP: The Democrat Party has gone so far left, they don't care about law and order.

Bring law and order back to our cities, back to our country.

Because people want law and order.

We are for justice, but we're for law and order. It's got to be law and order.

RASCOE: It's a rallying cry for a mostly white audience. And Trump is betting that it will help get him reelected. NPR examined the way Trump has talked about law and order with the help of Factbase, a website that compiles all of his public statements. It started back in 1989. Trump took out a full-page page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty against five Black and brown boys accused of attacking a woman in Central Park. They were later exonerated. During his first run for office, Trump shifted his law and order message. He blamed illegal immigration for surges in crime, even though studies show that's not true.


TRUMP: Well, you know, when you look at Ferguson and you look at St. Louis, like the other night, and you look at, let's say, Baltimore and Chicago, the gangs, you know, many of these gang members are illegal and they're tough dudes. They'll be out of there so fast, your head will spin.

RASCOE: Today, his law and order message is all about looting and cities run by Democrats. Quinton Lucas, mayor of Kansas City, Mo., says Trump's message is clear to him.

QUINTON LUCAS: It's playing on fear of Black people, on Black leadership, on Democratic leadership. It's embarrassing. It's awful.

RASCOE: Lucas is a Black Democrat. The Trump administration recently sent federal agents to Kansas City to combat a spike in crime that included the shooting death of a 4-year-old boy. Lucas feels like it's a short-term, politically motivated move, when what's needed is long-term cooperation, long-term solutions, kind of like what Trump talked about back at the last Republican convention.


TRUMP: The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens our communities.

RASCOE: Tracy Siska says that would mean dealing with the actual root causes of violence in cities, like the lack of services and opportunities. He's the head of the Chicago Justice Project, which pushes for database solutions to violence. That hasn't happened.

TRACY SISKA: So it's - completely rebuilding that social fabric in those communities is the start. Everyone says in Chicago and around the community, we're not going to arrest our way out of it. And then all they do is try to arrest their way out.

RASCOE: Now, Trump talks less about fixing the cities and more about protecting the suburbs.


TRUMP: If you want a vision of your life under Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago. And imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.

RASCOE: Mayor Lucas says the point remains the same.

LUCAS: But if you can scare the hell out of people, oh, my gosh, you get attention, you get energy, you get understanding and, sadly, you get votes.

RASCOE: Right now, polls show Trump behind in the suburbs. So it's not clear that the law and order message will work this time around. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.