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SC Gov. McMaster disparages Charleston response to protests in call with President Trump

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Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday criticized Charleston's response to its first day of protests, describing a chaotic Saturday night scene during a phone call with President Donald Trump. 

McMaster called what happened in Charleston over the weekend a "model thing." It was not a compliment.

Instead, McMaster used the city as an example of extremes between what happened Saturday versus what happened Sunday, when law enforcement responded with force and presence to protests.

"They had a whole lot of violence. They were taking, I guess you could say, a less confrontational approach," McMaster said of how he interpreted the city's police response on Saturday.

McMaster's comments came during the end of a nearly hourlong video teleconference Trump held with some of the nation's governors, as well as law enforcement and national security officials from the White House, to discuss the protests and riots that have been seen across the country since the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, a black man, died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

Footage of his death circulated widely, prompting outcry and calls for justice across the country. 

McMaster called King Street "a beautiful place" that took considerable damage during Saturday night's riots.

"People were busting out windows in restaurants and throwing in big firecrackers landing on the tables of diners," McMaster told the president and the other governors on the line.

"And because there was no curfew, the diners were still there and they were scaring everybody who was running out," McMaster continued.

He first said Charleston had a curfew, though later in the call as he set the scene, he incorrectly stated the city did not. The actual start of the lockdown was 11 p.m. Saturday.

He also mentioned a Hall's Chophouse employee who pulled out a gun and fired shots into the air. In his retelling of events, McMaster called the civilian's effort's an attempt "to scare off some of the agitators."

The governor then told Trump he was right about favoring a heavy police presence and response to quelling disturbances.

"We have to make it more difficult. We've got to take these people out, give them justice. Make it more than just the cost of doing business to come into one town, get arrested, pay bonds, and go to another town and do the same thing," McMaster said. 

McMaster then returned to Charleston, saying county Sheriff Al Cannon told him he had never seen such a police presence in his life on Sunday night.

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"And it worked like a charm. I think there were just a handful of arrests. They had five Humvees rolling around the city of Charleston, very peacefully," McMaster said.

"Strength works. You have to 'dominate,' as you said," McMaster said, referring to Trump's use of the word in advising the governors.

"And now is really the time to get serious about prosecuting these people, finding out where their organizations are, who's paying the money," he said.

At the end of his remarks, McMaster left his fellow governors with a piece of advice: "I think we have to be careful but we've got to be tough," he said.

Trump fired back, "You don't have to be too careful."

The president continued, "You have to do the prosecutions. If you don't do the prosecutions, they're just gonna be back."

"That's right," McMaster replied.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he appreciated the governor's support, as well as the assistance city police received from area law enforcement agencies. Sixteen members of the S.C. National Guard arrived on Sunday.

Reynolds said he mostly agreed with McMaster's assessment of Charleston's handling of the protests, but said the governor failed to grasp the context of what was happening on the ground as the events unfolded.

"The people who are really criticizing our approach have no experience doing what we do," said Reynolds, who was an officer during the riots in Baltimore. He later added, "That's a nature of a riot. you don't get a lot of advance notice."

Reynolds also refuted assertions that Mayor John Tecklenburg told officers to stand down and not arrest protesters on Saturday night, calling those claims "not based in fact."

The exchange between McMaster and Trump was a different dynamic than other governors experienced on the call.

Trump tore into a group of unidentified state leaders, deriding them as "weak." He also urged them "to get much tougher" and crack down on the protests that have rippled across the country since Floyd's death.

In Charleston, police vehicles burned, storefronts were destroyed and gunshots were reported along historic King Street on Saturday night. As an 11 p.m. curfew hit, Charleston police used spray and smoke to move the riot away from the city's core.

Reynolds said the concerns raised by peaceful protesters should not be ignored.

"I think we as a country have got to listen to those voices. We've got to facilitate and encourage those conversations. We've got to build those relationships, build those dialogues. We've got to have a space where we can make meaningful changes," he said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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