The Political Logic of Trump’s Executive Order on Policing

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In the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, President Donald Trump laid out an executive order addressing police misconduct and the ensuing national protests. Until now, his main response has been to voice strong support for “law and order” while condemning the excessive use of force, specifically in the case of George Floyd and generally across the country. His main theme has been: stop the mob rule, restore order, and get rid of a few bad apples. The executive order goes further, adding real substance to those vague pronouncements.

What does the executive order do?

The president’s executive order establishes a national credentialing process for police, making it harder for bad cops to transfer quietly to another city or county. It bans chokeholds — the kind that killed Mr. Floyd — except when the officer’s life is in danger. It provides training to de-escalate conflicts and funds social workers to assist police with endemic problems, such as homelessness, mental illness, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It will pay for non-lethal equipment, an indirect recognition that our policing relies too heavily on military equipment bought cheaply after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Police sometimes need that firepower and protection, but over-reliance puts officers in the wrong frame of mind and endangers suspects’ lives. De-escalate, if possible, and leave punishment up to the courts. The executive order moves in that direction, without saying so directly.

How does this executive order play out politically?

First, it allows Trump to tell swing voters, "See, I'm not a hardline law-and-order president. I want to restore order, of course, but I want enforcement to be fair and applied in a race-neutral way. Policing is a difficult and dangerous job, but a necessary one. Whenever possible, it should be done with the least violence possible." Who could object to that message? It is especially important for the president to deliver it after the harsh police confrontation around Lafayette Park last week and Trump’s support for it.

Second, Trump’s Rose Garden speech does something he normally does poorly: speak to the country with a unifying voice. He much prefers to punch back, not rise above. But there are times when the country cries out for unity and a calm voice, not a smack in the kisser. This is one such moment. Democrats will try to strip Trump of that unifying mantel, saying his speech and his executive order did not go far enough and were purely partisan. Speaker Pelosi, Minority Leader Schumer, and their colleagues will say that they alone can speak for the country, and especially for African Americans. The mainstream media will reinforce their message.

Third, Trump's executive order lets him embrace widely agreed-upon points about police reform, make them his own (or at least bipartisan), and leave the Democrats fighting for only the more controversial and extreme proposals.

Some conservatives will undoubtedly have reservations about Trump’s proposals. The issue is not the reforms themselves but the central government’s role in promoting them. The executive order is yet another step toward nationalizing a government function that was once entirely local: policing. Of course, local law enforcement must respect national constraints imposed by the Constitution and federal courts, such as reading suspects their Miranda warnings. But Trump’s order goes beyond that. As usual with Washington proposals, it uses “manna from D.C.” as the lure — and the cudgel. Police, like schools, will come to depend on those federal dollars, which, over time, will have more and more strings attached. Pretty soon, as with school lunches in the Obama years, Southern schools couldn’t serve grits. They didn’t meet regulations for healthy food, which Washington required for its funding. (Because of some dreadful error in drafting the Constitution, grits are not specifically protected.) The issue here is not the wisdom of the police reforms, but who has the power to demand them and how. If there are to be federal rules, should they be done by statute, regulation, judicial decision, or presidential fiat?

Fourth, the executive order may well help Trump with African American voters. Before the pandemic shutdown and recent rioting, Trump had been actively campaigning for that vote and making inroads. He won only 8% in 2016, but, even so, Hillary Clinton was hurt because the black turnout was smaller than for Barack Obama’s elections. The question for 2020 is whether Joe Biden will fare more like Hillary or Barack.

Even a small increase in the black vote for Trump, or a small decrease in turnout, could be dangerous for Democrats in close-run swing states. Trump knows that and has incorporated it in his campaign strategy. His "First Step Act," which eases punishment for non-violent offenders and helps former prisoners re-enter society, was a major electoral asset for him. He constantly tells black voters that he accomplished that after years of Democratic inaction.

The demonstrations and riots after George Floyd’s death and Trump’s own strong support for law and order were a serious blow to the president’s earlier campaign strategy. They made him a vulnerable target, not just for black activists but for Democratic mayors and governors — and for educated suburban voters, especially women. That’s why Trump’s executive order might be useful politically. It tries to blunt those attacks without diminishing his support for domestic order. He is saying, “I want law and order, and I intend to do it without excessive force or bad cops.” That’s a lot different from last week’s message calling for police to “dominate the streets.”

Trump’s political goals are simple enough:

  • Tie his opponents to the worst excesses of anti-police activism in major cities, all of which are controlled by Democrats.
  • Ensure that Trump’s support for law and order is coupled with sensitivity and practical measures to limit excess force.
  • Adopt shared ideas for police reform, make them his own, and leave Democrats backing only more controversial ones.

Whether Trump succeeds depends not only on how well he sells his program and how effectively Democrats push back; it also depends on whether 2020 is another volatile, deadly, and divisive summer on America’s streets. That’s something nobody in Washington can control.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at

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