Trump calls Detroit police chief 'terrific'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — President Donald Trump called Detroit's police chief "terrific," but James Craig said the praise, which comes during the home stretch of a heated presidential race, has drawn scrutiny into his own politics.

The president commended Craig on Tuesday during an interview with WJBK-TV’s Roop Raj, who was the pool reporter for 17 Fox affiliate stations nationwide that live-streamed the discussion. The 12-minute interview covered issues from the COVID-19 crisis to Trump’s pending Supreme Court nomination to crime.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

During a discussion about ongoing protests, some of which have turned violent, Raj asked Trump if he had a message to demonstrators “who are not breaking the law; who simply feel there’s a big problem out there.”

“Well you do have peaceful (protesters), but a lot of times the peaceful ones get a little bit crazy,” Trump said. “Because they’re led by Antifa and others that are professionals.”

Trump said the problems were confined to cities ran by Democrats. “The Republican states and cities are doing phenomenally right now,” he said.

Raj replied: “Detroit’s doing quite well under a Democratic mayor, with Chief James Craig.”

“You have a great police chief,” Trump said. “I watch him. I really like him a lot. Say hello to him. I think he’s terrific. I think he’s just an incredible representative; he speaks so well about a very important subject, which is crime and rioting, and all the things you see in certain cities.”

President Donald Trump

Craig said he’s honored by Trump’s praise, but he stressed he didn’t want it to become political and hoped the focus would be on his officers.

“I’m humbled that the president of the United States would give me credit for wanting to keep law and order, but it’s not about me; it’s about the men and women of this police department who have done a phenomenal job during a pandemic and up through these protests of more than 100 days," he said.

Craig said Trump’s praise has prompted others to question whether he’s a Democrat or Republican.

Attorney William Goodman, left, speaks during a press conference announcing a federal lawsuit by his client, the protest group Detroit Will Breathe that alleges Detroit police abused peaceful protesters.

“I’m an American,” Craig said. “Why is everything left or right? I get support from all sides — except the anarchists who want to undermine our government. I’m an American police officer who claims no party but relies on doing what is right and common sense. I align with both conservatives and liberals, depending on the issues."

During recent interviews, Craig has echoed Trump’s statements about protesters, and told The Detroit News Tuesday he believes violence at demonstrations is being driven by “trained Marxists.” 

Since the protests began in late May in response to the choking death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Craig has regularly appeared on national news programs to discuss how Detroit, which is perennially among the nation’s most violent cities, has largely been able to avoid major problems seen at protests in other communities.

There have been a few outbreaks of violence during Detroit protests, and some insist Detroit police were to blame and have called for Craig to resign. The chief says he doesn't plan to step down anytime soon.

A federal lawsuit filed last month by the protest group Detroit Will Breathe alleges peaceful protesters were "tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and otherwise subjected to unconstitutional excessive force, shot with rubber bullets ... put in chokeholds ... and arrested en masse without probable cause."

Craig said his officers used force only against violent protesters, or those who would not comply with repeated orders to disburse. 

Four days after Detroit Will Breathe's lawsuit was filed, U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson granted an accompanying motion to temporarily bar Detroit police from using tear gas, striking weapons, rubber bullets, chokeholds and other tactics and equipment on "peaceful protesters."

Craig said the injunction was moot since he insisted his officers only used those tactics and equipment on non-peaceful protesters.

Attorney William Goodman, who represents Detroit Will Breathe in the lawsuit, said there's no evidence anyone in the group has committed violence.

"The city of Detroit has been unable to identify any member of Detroit Will Breathe, or an activist within the group who has engaged in violence at any one of these demonstrations," Goodman said. "They tried in court filings, and they fell short."

Goodman said he took exception to Craig's characterization of protesters as Marxists and anarchists.

"The idea that he's trying to label them by political ideology is just a way of tarnishing people who don't agree with how he's running the police department," Goodman said. "I'm sure there are people of all political stripes in these organizations, but the one thing that binds them is the opposition to police misconduct and racism. 

"The fact that the chief wants to call them anarchists just means to me that he's voting for Donald Trump, and buys into that brand of fantasy that Trump is trying to sell across the country," Goodman said.

Craig said his opinion of violent protesters is apolitical. 

"I would hope both Democrats and Republicans would support law and order and denounce riots and destruction of property," he said.