Donald Trump has accused the Black Lives Matter movement of “dividing America” amid renewed tensions surrounding police brutality and race relations, while suggesting he identified with African Americans who felt as though the system was stacked against them.The presumptive Republican nominee addressed the fallout from deadly police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and the killing of five police officers in Dallas, during both an interview with Fox News and a rally in Westfield, Indiana.But even as he expressed concerns over the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, describing videos of the encounters as “tough to watch”, Trump blamed Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter as primarily responsible for divisions over race.
“I think it’s certainly, it’s very divisive and I think they’re hurting themselves,” Trump told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in reference to the phrase “black lives matter” and the eponymous movement leading national demonstrations for criminal justice reform.
“The first time I heard it I said ‘You have to be kidding,’” said Trump. “I think it’s a very, very, very divisive term. There’s no question about it.”
Asked what he would say to African Americans who feel as though the system was biased against them, Trump drew an analogy with his own campaign.
“Well, I’ve been saying, even against me the system is rigged,” Trump told O’Reilly. “When I ran for president I could see what is going on with the system, and the system is rigged.
“I can really relate it very much to myself.”
Trump criticised the killings of Sterling and Castile as “a terrible, disgusting performance” by police. He struck a similar note while taking the stump in Indiana on Tuesday evening.
“The two people killed in Louisiana and Minnesota, it was tough to watch,” Trump said. “I hated watching it.”
“We have to figure it out what’s going on,” he added. “Was it training, was it something else? Could’ve been something else.
“We have to take care of everybody … but we also have to get to the bottom of things. We have to.”
The conflicting remarks were indicative of Trump’s struggle to soften his tone as his campaign insists he is capable of pivoting to the general election.
Despite raising concerns over criminal justice, his rhetoric against Black Lives Matter remains more in line with his aggressive posture on the subject during the Republican primary.
Through most of his campaign Trump has vehemently defended law enforcement and even shared misleading and racially charged crime data over his Twitter account. He also suggested at a rally in November that a Black Lives Matter protester “should have been roughed up”.
Trump, overwhelmingly unpopular among African Americans in the polls, has declined an invitation to address the NAACP’s annual convention next week. Previous Republican candidates have addressed the gathering of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organisation. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will speak before the group on Monday.
On Tuesday in Indiana, Trump used most of his remarks on police dealings with minorities to reiterate his support for law enforcement.
“The police are not just part of our society. The police are the best of our society,” he said. “We have to remember that. They represent our highest ideals, our greatest values and our most noble characteristics.”
Trump was joined at the rally by the Indiana governor, Mike Pence, a top contender for the vice-presidential nomination. Trump is expected to announce a running mate within days and is also eyeing Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and 2012 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Auditioning for the role on Tuesday, Pence praised Trump as “a fighter, a builder and a patriot”.
“We will not rest, we will not relent, until we make this good man our president,” Pence said.
Returning the praise moments later, Trump asked the governor’s hometown crowd about his performance as Indiana’s chief executive.
“Good? I think so,” he said. “I think so.”
As Trump and Pence previewed a possible Republican ticket on the stump, House Speaker Paul Ryan weighed in on what qualities he hoped Trump would consider while vetting contenders.
“I would like a conservative,” Ryan, who was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, told CNN during a town hall event on Tuesday night.
“I would like someone to assure conservatives that the conservative principles will be adhered to and maintained throughout not just the campaign, but throughout his presidency.”
Ryan also called for “mutual respect” on the issue of relations between police and minority communities.
The speaker said it was important to show support for law enforcement and to acknowledge that “they take their lives at risk” each day.
“I also think it’s important that we acknowledge that the fact that there are people in this country who believe that because of their color of their skin, they’re not as safe as everybody else,” Ryan added.
“And the fact that people think that and feel that is a problem in this country.”