When President Donald Trump arrived in Chicago for a speech Monday, only one local official was at O’Hare International Airport to welcome him. It was not the city’s mayor or the Illinois governor. It was Kevin Graham, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, a union that represents about 12,000 rank-and-file Chicago officers. That followed a decision by police Superintendent Eddie Johnson to skip Trump’s speech because of what the top cop described as the president’s “racial insults and hatred.” WBEZ spoke with Graham on Tuesday about his perspective on Trump’s visit.
What was it like to be on the tarmac welcoming President Trump when he stepped off Air Force One?
It was really an honor to be there to greet the president of the United States. And I must tell you, when Air Force One is pulling up and you see two Marine helicopters waiting there for him and you have three trailer planes that are behind that, it’s awesome to see all of what’s going on. On the tarmac, the White House people positioned me at the bottom of the steps where the president was going to disembark. There were Secret Service and FBI agents and people from the White House around. And as the president started to walk down, they all disappeared. I was the only one standing there to greet the president. And for a guy who walked a beat in Uptown most of his career, it certainly was a great honor to be able to welcome the president of the United States to the city of Chicago.
After you met President Trump on the tarmac, did you ride with him in his helicopter to his speech at McCormick Place?
No. He asked me if I was going to go with him. That would have been another awesome experience. But the White House staff had already told me that they didn’t think there was enough room in the helicopter. So I drove. I was very close to him during the speech. I was probably just about 20 feet away. He was a very charming individual, and he was very gracious to me and the Chicago Police Department. He made sure that one of our officers who was shot in the line of duty a few weeks ago was sitting right out in front. CPD members were sitting alongside him, and it was a great honor for them as well. He really seems to care about the men and women of the Chicago Police Department.
The president basically blamed Superintendent Johnson for Chicago’s high murder numbers, even though murders have been declining since 2016 — all on Johnson’s watch. What did you think of those comments?
We certainly do have high-crime areas in the city. If you tell people we have 20, 30, 40, even 50 people shot in a weekend, they would find it unacceptable. It is true the crime numbers have gone down. One of the reasons, though — and this seems to get overlooked — is that Chicago police officers along with our federal partners have gone out and risked their necks to get guns off the street. Last month we got 1,000 guns off the street. That’s pretty remarkable. Getting the guns off the street and arresting the criminals is what’s driving down the crime. And through the help of the federal prosecutors, we are going after those people who would not be prosecuted at a local level.
What else would you like to see the president and the federal government do to help reduce violence in Chicago?
I would like them to continue to send the federal agents that have assisted us in prosecuting gun crimes. And I would also like it if we can have federal money for the city of Chicago to build a new police academy — a state-of-the-art facility. I think that’s important for both our members and for the people of the city of Chicago.
This interview was conducted by WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell and edited for length and clarity.