In her typical appearances on Fox News, Jeanine Pirro, a former Republican district attorney, reserves her highest dudgeon for castigating liberals and lamenting the demise of law and order.
But on Friday’s “Fox & Friends,” Ms. Pirro’s voice nearly broke as she described the agonizing final moments of George Floyd, the black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer ignored his pleas and pinned him to the ground during a routine stop.
“George Floyd was begging, saying he couldn’t breathe, saying please, please,” Ms. Pirro told viewers. “This man who put his knee on the neck of George Floyd does not deserve to be free in this country.”
Even right-wing stars like Rush Limbaugh hedged their assessments early on, as the officer’s lethal force drew more condemnation in some corners of the right than the ensuing riots and the burning of a police precinct. “I can’t find a way to justify it,’’ Mr. Limbaugh said of the officer’s actions.
The chilling circumstances of Mr. Floyd’s death — particularly the graphic, indisputable video of his arrest — have, at least for now, posed a political quandary among some conservative politicians, media stars and President Trump, whose usual instinct is to focus on blaming liberals for promoting lawlessness.
The ongoing protests in Minneapolis and around the country may still alter conservative views. On Fox News on Friday night, Tucker Carlson began his show with a graphic calling the Minnesota protesters “Criminal Mobs,” and wondered aloud why Republicans were not reacting more intensely against the violence in Minneapolis. Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham condemned the demonstrators for, in Mr. Hannity’s words, “exploiting” Mr. Floyd’s death.
The law enforcement community is one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal constituencies, and he and his allies are in uncharted territory as they weigh expressions of solidarity with the nation’s police forces against grappling with the horror of Mr. Floyd’s death.
Initially, Mr. Trump issued a brutal law-and-order message early Friday morning, tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” His implication that protesters should be shot by law enforcement drew enormous blowback from Democratic leaders and other critics; some 14 hours later, he said his tweet had been misinterpreted, and later talked about the “good people” who were demonstrating in Mr. Floyd’s honor.
“They were protesting for the right reasons,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday evening, in relatively subdued remarks for a president best-known for bluster and vitriol. “They were protesting in honor of a man, George Floyd, where something happened that shouldn’t have happened.”
Aides to Mr. Trump said on Friday they saw little advantage in further inflaming a situation that had already turned violent across several cities. They were mindful, too, of avoiding any further alienation of African-American voters, ahead of an election where even marginal shifts in support could help him eke out a victory in November.
By Saturday morning, however, Mr. Trump had shifted tone again, writing in a tweet that any “protesters” — he put the word in quotes — who behaved out of line at the White House would face a “hard” response by Secret Service and “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
Casting itself as the upholder of law-and-order has been a perennial Republican Party strategy in times of racial disharmony and social unrest, from the 1967 riots in Detroit and Newark to Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
But the stark footage of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of Mr. Floyd as he pleaded and moaned “I can’t breathe” produced an unusual moment when those on either side of the nation’s split-screen politics were, publicly at least, evincing a common cause.
The moment may be fleeting.
In an appearance on Fox News on Friday evening, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas faced tough questions from Mr. Carlson — one of Mr. Trump’s favorite anchors — about why the senator was quick to denounce Mr. Floyd’s death as “a horrific act of police brutality.”
“In this instance, we have a video of the incident,” Mr. Cruz said. “What we saw was wrong.”
Mr. Carlson pushed back, asking Mr. Cruz if he believed it was fair to bring a murder charge against the officer who arrested Mr. Floyd.
“Why doesn’t anybody stand up for the rest of us, for civilization?” Mr. Carlson asked.
The exchange, between two pillars of the conservative establishment, threw into relief the tensions that had played out on cable TV and talk-radio this week.
On his syndicated radio show on Thursday, Mr. Limbaugh expressed dismay at the actions of the police. “Look, you people in law enforcement know I’m at the top of the list of people who support you and understand how hard your jobs are,” he told listeners. “I still — given all of that, do not … I cannot find a way to explain that. I can’t find a way to justify it. I don’t care what the guy did.”
But Mr. Limbaugh also mocked the Democratic mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, who had made a tearful plea for unity.
“This is a blue state where this happened; this is a state run by Democrats; this is a state run by leftists,” Mr. Limbaugh told listeners. “Don’t forget, these are the people who have been promising their African-American voters this stuff’s gonna stop for 50 years. They don’t fix anything.”
Senator John Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican, appearing on Fox News on Friday, called Mr. Floyd’s death a “murder,” but he also said “the people who are trying to burn down Minneapolis should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
J. McCauley Brown, the Republican Party chairman in Kentucky, said in an interview that “it’s unfortunate there are some people who are getting violent.” But he called Mr. Floyd’s death “tragic,” adding, “I can understand totally why people are protesting.”
Among some conservatives, condemnation of the Minnesota police officers was often entwined with disdain for perennial targets of the right: big city Democratic politicians, the media, the Black Lives Matter movement and others who conservatives have blamed for helping stoke the violence. On Friday, the Drudge Report blared a headline in capital letters: “Unrest Spreads in U.S.A.”
The president’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, seized on the backlash to Mr. Trump’s “looting” tweet to attack “the media, Joe Biden, and the Democrats,” ticking off a triumvirate of Republican boogeymen.
In a campaign statement, Mr. Parscale wrote that Minneapolis was “in chaos” and, without evidence, accused Democrats and the media of capitalizing on the tragedy as “a political opportunity and a chance to make money” — both offenses that Mr. Trump and Mr. Parscale himself are often accused of.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, wrote on Twitter that “what happened to George Floyd was disgusting.” But he quickly added: “There’s never an excuse for the type of violent riots unfolding now. No American should ever have to watch their own community burn to the ground.”
For years now, some Republicans have sought to turn the issue of racial inequality and injustice to their political advantage. The president — who famously courted African-Americans to take a chance on him in 2016 by asking “What the hell do you have to lose?” — has long believed that he could appeal to black voters by blaming Democrats for chronic problems in predominantly black communities like poverty, crime and poor schools.
The president’s decision to call the Floyd family and express his condolences suggested that he did not view this episode as the kind of racially fraught cultural battlefront he would otherwise barrel into.
And with the nation on edge, the gravity of the situation had not been lost on Mr. Trump’s team. At a Friday morning meeting, two White House aides, Brook Rollins and Ja’Ron Smith, argued it would be tone-deaf for Mr. Trump to roll out new initiatives, even those related to the coronavirus, in the next few days that did not pertain to the fallout from Mr. Floyd’s death.
All that could change, especially if the situation continues to deteriorate in cities like Minneapolis, and if cable news — closely monitored by Mr. Trump — is filled with images of violence and carnage.
“Give it 24 or 48 hours,” Charlie Sykes, a longtime conservative radio star who now opposes Mr. Trump, said in an interview. “This is the president who ran as the law and order president. It is almost irresistible.”
Mr. Sykes said it was inevitable that the conservative media outrage machine would ramp up as the right-wing playbook reasserts itself, after the short-term caution in the aftermath of a horrific murder caught on tape.
Indeed, by Friday evening, Mr. Hannity was warning viewers about “radical rioters exploiting this death of Mr. Floyd, committing crimes, justifying crimes, threatening more violence.” To analyze the protests, Ms. Ingraham brought on a provocative guest: Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles police detective infamous for his role in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
For now, Republican officials continue to see two problems at hand, each of which they believe is serious and urgent. “I understand the protesters are frustrated and they want swift justice, and I feel that for them,” Laura Cox, Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan, said in an interview.
But, Ms. Cox added, “When it starts to be about breaking into police precincts, that’s problematic.”