U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and a top White House adviser, made a surprise visit to north Minneapolis Thursday as part of a Midwest tour to highlight what Republicans say is growing lawlessness in Democratic-controlled cities.
The two met with Flora Westbrooks, whose North Side salon burned down in the riots that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May. Speaking at the Airport InterContintal Hotel later, Westbrooks recalled the crushing feeling she had when her son called her to say that her 35-year-old business was on fire. She said she raced to the scene, but it was too late.
“It was horrible to stand there and see your business burn, everything you worked for,” she said. “I just want my business back.”
Her story amplified the Trump campaign’s focus on the urban unrest that has rocked Minneapolis and other American cities in the wake of Floyd’s death amid a broader reckoning on racial justice.
Several other business owners joined Westbrook onstage, each with their own story of frustration with the violence and destruction that wracked the Twin Cities in the days after Floyd’s death. Lloyd Drillings owner Thurston Jewelers recalled watching helplessly as looters broke into his store. He called 911 only to be told that police couldn’t respond because they were “basically overwhelmed by the situation.”
Long Her said he wept when he found that someone had stolen a safe containing $10,000 from his fashion store along University Avenue in St. Paul.
Billed as a “Cops for Trump” listening session, Thursday’s event featured the testimony of one law enforcement officer, Matt Hagen, a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy and president of the state Fraternal Order of Police. Hagen said that police were feeling besieged and that calls in Minneapolis to cut their funding would only undercut law enforcement’s ability to fight crime.
“One of the first things that they’re going to have to cut is training,” said the 21-year agency veteran. “You start cutting funding we’re going to be less trained.”
Several members of the Minneapolis police union were at the rally but didn’t speak. Among them was Minneapolis Police Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll, who made headlines last year selling “Cops for Trump” T-shirts in defiance of a department directive banning officers form wearing their uniforms in supports of candidates at political events or in ads.
Earlier in the afternoon, the vice president’s motorcade had pulled into north Minneapolis for an unannounced tour after leaving a campaign stop in Eau Claire, Wis.
Ivanka Trump, U.S. Labor secretary Eugene Scalia and Pence were shown around by a visibly emotional Westbrooks, whose voice trailed off before pointing to the rubble-filled lot where Flora’s Hair Design used to be.
“I came here in the morning it was here. I came back at five o’clock it was …,” she said.
“We’re with you,” Pence said.
At the event later that afternoon, Pence promised to help her rebuild the business.
“American people want us to stand by law enforcement and stand by our African-American neighbors and others who’ve been impacted by the violence across our country,” he said. “It’s not an either or.”
Speaking to the Star Tribune afterward, Westbrook said the day had been a whirlwind of interviews and wasn’t quite sure how she’d been chosen to participate in the fanfare. She said Pence and Ivanka Trump had been kind to her.
Pence’s visit follows a campaign stop by the president at the airport last month, during which he met with other small-business owners whose stores were damaged in the post-Floyd protests. The state has emerged as a potentially key battleground in the upcoming election.
On the campaign trail, Trump has seized on protests over racial injustice to promote his “law-and-order” message and position Republicans as a force of stability, following a playbook that Republicans have used in past presidential elections. While most protests have been peaceful, Trump has repeatedly criticized protesters and activists on the stump, saying they make America less safe.
Minneapolis leaders have also drawn the president’s ire at several public appearances, with Trump accusing them of failing to prevent widespread destruction while talking of cutting police budgets and abolishing the city’s police force.
Before Pence’s visit Gov. Tim Walz activated 100 state National Guardsmen in anticipation of protests surrounding Pence’s campaign stop.
“Out of an abundance of caution for the safety of Minnesotans, we have asked the Minnesota National Guard to assist in keeping the peace,” Walz said in a statement. A spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey confirmed that the mobilization followed a request by Minneapolis city officials to head off any potential unrest.
But, only a handful of protesters, some clutching handmade signs, showed up in the area around the hotel, which was tightly controlled even by already strict airport standards. A lineup of parked Metropolitan Airports Commission trucks formed a blockade in front of the hotel. After Pence’s arrival a lone protester carrying a Biden 2020 sign was allowed to stand on the median outside the hotel under the watchful eye of several bicycle cops.
The visit came a day after a Kentucky grand jury looking into the death of Breonna Taylor indicted a single former police officer on charges of shooting into neighboring apartments but did not to indict any officers directly in her death. The decision sparked protests nationwide Wednesday night, including in St. Paul, where demonstrators briefly shut down Interstate-94.
Pence briefly addressed Floyd’s killing.
“I want to be clear, there’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd and justice will be served,” he said to a smattering of applause.
The applause grew louder, when he mentioned that rioters and looters would be “held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Staff writers Rochelle Olson and Erin Adler contributed to this report.