MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump got a firsthand look today at damaged stores in Kenosha, Wis. The city has been roiled by protests and riots after police shot a black man, Jacob Blake, and paralyzed him. Trump wasn't there to talk about Jacob Blake. He did have a very specific political message in this battleground state.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence. Reckless far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.
KELLY: National political correspondent Mara Liasson was watching this today. She's here now.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: So we said the president was not in Wisconsin to talk about Jacob Blake. He didn't meet with the family of Jacob Blake. He did invite pastors who knew Blake's mother. What was he doing in Kenosha today?
LIASSON: He was in Kenosha with a very specific goal. He was there to link the violence in cities to Democrats. As he said, it's all Democrats. It's all Democratic cities or, as he put it, Democrat cities. He never mentioned Joe Biden, who, yesterday, condemned violence on both the left and the right. But he was there to make the point also that he can fix it.
He talked about the federal cooperation with law enforcement in Kenosha. The National Guard went in at the request of the governor. Now Kenosha is quiet. And he did also talk a lot about Portland, where he says they aren't letting us come into help. That's why it's a mess. So it was a pretty disciplined message on law and order, and it's the message that he thinks is going to turn the campaign around, close the gap with Joe Biden.
KELLY: OK, so strong message on law and order. Did he touch, Mara, on the issues that are animating a lot of these protests this summer - police brutality, racial injustice?
LIASSON: No, he only brought those up when he was asked by reporters about systemic racism or about problems with police brutality, and he actually chided them. He said, you're bringing up the opposite subject. You keep getting back to the other story. Let's talk about violence. That's what you should focus on. He said it hurts the media when you talk about peaceful protests, so he was pretty clear what he wanted to talk about.
He was asked about - people want structural change. He said, yes, they want structural change. They don't want to be raped and murdered or have their houses broken into. So he's focusing on violence from what he considers to be left-wing anarchists. And he also made the point that he's spending some more federal money in Kenosha for law enforcement programs.
KELLY: I do want to note that the mayor of Kenosha said, please don't come. The governor of the state said, please don't come. They're saying this is not going to promote healing. This is going to stoke division. Is it unusual for a president to set aside the concerns of the governor and the mayor and come anyway?
LIASSON: Yes, it's unusual. It's just unusual also for presidents to focus so much on division instead of trying to unify the country. Even previous presidents who also cast themselves as very tough on law and order tried to bring the country together. Richard Nixon, who kind of invented this modern law and order strategy in 1968, ran as the tough law and order candidate but also said he was the candidate to, quote, "bring us together again." That was another one of his slogans. But that's not what Trump wants to do. He believes that this kind of divisive strategy worked for him in 2016, and it's going to work again.
KELLY: Speaking of again, you're pointing us toward the election November 3. We mentioned Wisconsin is a serious battleground state in this election, a fact not lost on the president or anyone during this visit today, I would imagine.
LIASSON: No, not at all. Wisconsin is the No. 1 battleground state. And you know that you're in a swing state when, along the route of the motorcade, there are signs saying, make Kenosha great again, and then a lot of people giving middle-fingered salutes to the president, which according to the poll report, that's what happened today.
But look; if Trump hangs on to Wisconsin, even if he loses Michigan and Pennsylvania and doesn't lose any other states, he can still win. He won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes - very, very close. And the race has tightened not necessarily because of anything Trump's done. People still view his handling of the racial unrest poorly. But Democrats were worried when they saw the latest racial unrest happened there. They want Biden - they were happy Biden was forceful, but they want him to go to Wisconsin.
KELLY: Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you.
KELLY: National political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.