The White House on Wednesday said President Donald Trump was raising “questions that need to be asked” when he shared an unfounded conspiracy theory suggesting that an older protester police pushed to the ground last week in Buffalo, New York, could have been an anti-fascist “provocateur” trying to disrupt police communications.
“In every case we can’t jump on one side without looking at all the facts at play,” White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told the “Fox & Friends” show.
She said 75-year-old Martin Gugino, who remains hospitalized with a concussion, had made “some very questionable tweets, some profanity-laden tweets about police officers.
“Of course, no one condones any sort of violence,” she said. “We need the appropriate amount of force used in any interaction,” while adding, “There are a lot of questions in that case.”
She noted that after two police officers, Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe, were charged with assaulting Gugino, 57 of their colleagues on the Buffalo police department’s Emergency Response Team resigned from the unit in a show of support for them.
“So I think we need to ask why those police officers resigned, what happened, what facts were on the ground and the president was just raising some of those questions,” McEnany said.
Gugino was knocked to the ground after he approached police trying to clear a Buffalo street of demonstrators last Friday who were protesting against the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after he was held face down by a white police officer who pressed his knee on his neck even as protested that he could not breathe. The policeman, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder in the incident.
After two weeks of coast-to-coast protests about his death, some of them violent, the 46-year-old Floyd was buried Tuesday after a funeral in Houston, Texas, where he lived much of his life.
McEnany, the Trump spokeswoman, did not answer a question in the Fox interview whether it was appropriate for the president to tweet about the Gugino case on the day of Floyd’s funeral. She said Trump “has acknowledged so many times” the injustice of Floyd’s death.
Trump was widely rebuked Tuesday about his tweet repeating a conspiracy theory he heard on the Trump-leaning One America News Network that Gugino “could be” an anti-fascist “provocateur.” Trump said Gugino “was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment.”
Trump added, “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”
A lawyer for Gugino quickly condemned Trump’s tweet, saying it was “a dark, dangerous and untrue accusation” that the man had been part of a “set up" coordinated by anti-fascist demonstrators.
“Martin has always been a PEACEFUL protester because he cares about today’s society," attorney Kelly Zarcone said. "He is also a typical Western New Yorker who loves his family. No one from law enforcement has suggested otherwise.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee against Trump in November’s national election, said his father used to say that abuse of power was the "worst sin there is.”
"Whether it is a police officer injuring a peaceful protester or a president defending him with a conspiracy theory seen on television (...) We cannot accept either," Biden said.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also condemned Trump’s tweet.
“There’s no fact to any of it. He should apologize for that tweet. How reckless, how mean, how cruel,” Cuomo said.
Gugino staggered backward and fell on the sidewalk, suffering a concussion. Video showed numerous officers from the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team walking past him as he lay motionless and bleeding.
Torgalski and McCabe have pleaded not guilty in the incident.
News outlets reported that Gugino is a longtime peace activist in upstate New York, a member of PUSH Buffalo, which focuses on affordable housing, and the Western New York Peace Center, a human rights organization.
He is also active in the Catholic Worker Movement and has frequently criticized Trump on social media.
Trump has often blamed Antifa, an anti-fascist movement, as a domestic terrorist organization and said with scant evidence that they have been responsible for the violence that erupted in some of the coast-to-coast protests after Floyd’s death.
In recent days, the protests have been largely peaceful with few arrests.