WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump sparked controversy Friday, calling it a "great day" for George Floyd, the man whose death in custody last week unleashed nationwide protests over police brutality against African Americans.
"We all saw what happened last week. We can't let that happen," Trump said of Floyd, who was killed as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
"Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying, 'This is a great thing that's happening for our country.'"
The remarks during a televised White House briefing came eleven days after Floyd's death and sparked confusion as to why Trump thought it was a great day for Floyd.
"This is a great, great day in terms of equality," Trump added, even as he stands accused by many of having failed to respond to the racism, police brutality and inequalities that demonstrators are protesting.
Trump had summoned the media to welcome a surprisingly strong US jobs report, the opposite of what economists had expected given measures in place to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
The rest of his speech was devoted to welcoming the good news on the economy, which Trump said was now in "rocket" mode.
Trump's "great day" comments were seen by many as too closely conflating Floyd's death and the day's good economic news, and as speaking on behalf of Floyd on the economy.
The White House called such an interpretation "false."
"It was very clear the President was talking about the fight for equal justice and equal treatment under the law when he made this comment," White House senior communications advisor Ben Williamson wrote on Twitter.
Trump brought up this theme before speaking about Floyd: "Equal justice under the law must mean that every American receives equal treatment in every encounter with law enforcement regardless of race, color, gender or creed," he said.
Trump's decision to put words in Floyd's mouth was nonetheless roundly criticized.
Joe Biden, his presumptive Democratic opponent in the November election, immediately lashed out at Trump for invoking Floyd's name, calling it "despicable."
"George Floyd's last words, 'I can't breathe,' have echoed across our nation and around the world," Biden tweeted.
Since Floyd's May 25 death and subsequent protests, which have included rioting and looting in many US cities, Trump has favored a militant response.
Presenting himself as a "law and order" president, Trump has threatened to send the US military into the streets to quell the ongoing demonstrations.
Trump reiterated on Friday that authorities need to "dominate the streets," and criticized governors in states that had rejected sending in the National Guard during protests and rioting.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper rebuffed Trump over the idea of deploying troops, a proposal that earned sharp criticism from previous Pentagon leaders including Jim Mattis.
Trump has always believed the best policy for reducing inequality is promoting economic growth among African Americans.
"What you now see... is the greatest thing that can happen for race relations, for the African American community, for the Asian American, for the Hispanic American, for women, for everything," Trump said Friday.
"Our country is so strong, and that's what my plan is. We're going to have the strongest economy in the world," he added.
For the past three years, Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has "done more for the black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln," who abolished slavery in the 1860s.