Washington: Donald Trump will seek to console the grief-stricken residents of El Paso and Dayton on Wednesday - a presidential duty he’s never quite mastered and that is made harder by local reluctance about his visit.
The president and first lady Melania Trump will pay tribute to emergency responders in both cities after a pair of weekend shootings left at least 31 people dead and dozens injured. But the visits are complicated both by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric - blamed by Democrats for helping to incite the El Paso attack - and his resistance to gun-control measures demanded by local politicians in the aftermath of the shootings.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso, said Trump shouldn’t visit, and the city’s Republican mayor has acknowledged local opposition to the president. Dayton’s mayor, a Democrat, has criticized Trump’s reaction to the shootings, in which he blamed mental illness and video games and refused to endorse proposals such as expanded background checks for gun buyers.
“His comments weren’t very helpful to the issue around guns,” the mayor, Nan Whaley, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “If you just do mental health and don’t do gun work, on common-sense gun legislation, we will not be successful in this fight.”
Republicans resist gun control legistlation
The U.S. experiences mass shootings at a pace that far exceeds any other developed nation, but Trump’s Republican Party has resisted policies that seek to limit civilian access to firearms. Further complicating Trump’s attempts to soothe the nation, the El Paso attacker posted a racist manifesto online that echoed language the president himself has used in verbal attacks on immigrants and minority members of Congress.
“The president’s the president of all the people, and what he wants to do is go to these communities and grieve with them, pray with them, offer condolences, and quite frankly offer thank you and appreciation to those who are first responders and put their lives on the line and were able to take out the shooter so quickly,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday.
“He also wants to talk about potential solutions - how we keep this from ever happening again,” Gidley said.
Gidley said the president is open to considering new legislation, including a background checks bill that passed the House but has not been advanced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats have called on McConnell to bring forward the bill.
Trump suggested in a tweet on Monday that the legislation could be “married” to his proposals to restrict U.S. immigration, which are opposed by most Democrats - a tactic that would raise the chances of both issues remaining stalled in Congress.
'Only a racist would side with a mass murderer'
O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress until his term expired in January, flatly rejected the idea. ‘Only a racist, driven by fear, could witness what took place this weekend”-and instead of standing up to hatred, side with a mass murderer’s call to make our country more white,’ O’Rourke said.
Trump responded in a tweet that questioned the Hispanicness of the ‘Beto’ nickname O’Rourke has held since childhood and mocked his lower-tier poll numbers. O’Rourke, Trump said on Twitter, ‘should respect the victims & law enforcement - & be quiet!’
O’Rourke fired back: ‘22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I.’
The president also has a tense history with El Paso’s mayor, Dee Margo, a former Republican state representative who champions the diverse background of his city. Trump held a political rally there earlier this year where he boasted about his efforts to build a wall, an effort Margo dismissed as ineffectual.
“I don’t care whether a mayor is a Republican or a Democrat, they’re full of crap when they say it has not made a big difference,” Trump said at the rally. The city says the Trump campaign still owes it money for the rally.
The mayor said he’d meet Trump, but made clear his lack of enthusiasm for the visit.
“I want to clarify, for the political spin, that this is the office of the mayor of El Paso, in an official capacity, welcoming the office of the president of the United States, which I consider is my formal duty,” Margo told reporters this week. “I will meet with the president, and I guess for people who have lots of time on their hands, I’ll deal with their emails and their phone calls.”
“I was noted from the podium, as I recall,” Margo said, recalling Trump’s earlier visit. “I will continue to challenge any harmful and inaccurate statements made about El Paso.”
In remarks at the White House on Monday, Trump condemned racism and white supremacy, though has not directly addressed overlap between his own anti-immigrant rhetoric and that of the El Paso shooting suspect.
Trump shifts blame
Trump said mental illness was a factor in the shootings, though it’s unknown whether either attacker was diagnosed with such a condition, and blamed violent video games in part for the attacks. Scientific research has failed to establish a link between video game violence and real-life violence, and the same games played in the U.S. are available in countries with far lower rates of homicide and mass shootings.
Whaley, the Dayton mayor, said Trump’s remarks on Monday “really fell short” and skirted the issue of access to guns. Trump also misspoke during his remarks, expressing condolences for Toledo, instead of Dayton.
“My immediate reaction is: people from the coast never understand Ohio, and they think all Ohio cities are the same, and it’s an exhausting issue that we have all the time, and that if we had people from power centers really invest and pay attention to our communities, we’d all be better off,” Whaley said Monday.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, said he thought the president’s visit was appropriate for a grieving community. But Whaley declined to endorse the timing and criticized Washington lawmakers.
“Look, he’s the president of the United States. He does his calendar, I do mine,” Whaley said at a news conference on Tuesday. “What do you see in DC? You see a lot of nothing happening on a lot of stuff. Common-sense gun reform is definitely an example where nothing’s happened.”