WASHINGTON – As he left for a daylong trip to Texas and Ohio on Wednesday to meet with the victims of back-to-back shootings, President Donald Trump dismissed criticism that his own campaign trail rhetoric has contributed to the violence.
“My critics are political people,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
His critics, he said, are seeking “political gain.”
The shootings in El Paso and Dayton, in which at least 31 people were killed, have once again thrust Trump into the increasingly familiar role of consoling communities reeling from the brutality of the killings while navigating the tricky politics of gun control.
This time, however, at least some residents of the affected communities may not welcome Trump so warmly. Some critics argue that Trump’s rhetorical broadsides on migrants in particular created an atmosphere of hate that presaged the attacks.
The president said lawmakers are working toward a deal on legislation to increase background checks for gun purchases. Some lawmakers are discussing the possibility of red-flag provisions. Background checks would be a higher hurdle.
Red flag laws allow law enforcement, family members and others to petition a judge to confiscate guns from individuals who may cause harm to themselves or others.
“I’m looking to do background checks,” Trump said, adding that there is a “great appetite” for background checks.
When the president lands in El Paso in the afternoon, after visiting Dayton in the morning, he will be confronted by a front-page editorial in the El Paso Times lauding the city’s response and questioning the way his administration characterizes the community.
“Mr. President, in your February State of the Union address, you claimed that El Paso was ‘one of our nation’s most dangerous cities’ before a border wall was built,” editor Tim Archuleta wrote. “Mr. President, that is not El Paso.”
The El Paso Times is part of the USA TODAY Network.
President Donald Trump said our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy following two mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. USA TODAY
The El Paso gunman wrote a “manifesto” expressing concern about an “invasion” by Hispanics, echoing language often used by Trump to describe migrants.
Trump expressed grievances in pre-trip tweets, criticizing Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke around midnight on Tuesday after the former congressman said the president should stay away from El Paso.
USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll: Who’s to blame for mass shootings?
Trump also urged the news media to focus on reports that the shooter in Dayton allegedly used a Twitter account to express support for Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. While it’s true that other mass shooters have supported Democrats, Trump did not address the fact that his own rhetoric is unusual among national politicians in the intensity he brings to his attacks on immigrants.
Several El Paso officials urged Trump not to visit the area.
“Don’t come here President Trump, you are not welcome,” wrote Cassandra Hernandez, a city council member representing the neighborhood where the shooting occurred.
Mass shootings in the US: After El Paso and Dayton, 112 killed in mass shootings over 216 days
Mayor Dee Margo, the Republican mayor of El Paso, said he will meet with Trump.
In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told SiriusXM on Tuesday said he would not join Trump on the Dayton visit. “I don’t have any interest because of what he’s done on this – total unwillingness to address the issue of guns, his racist rhetoric.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she planned to tell him that his proposals on gun control as outlined in remarks Monday are inadequate.
“His comments weren’t very helpful to the issue around guns,” Whaley told reporters.
Trump has at times struggled to fulfill the role of consoler-in-chief increasingly demanded of modern presidents. The president was greeted by hundreds of protesters singing softly in Hebrew or holding signs as he visited the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, days after a gunman killed 11 worshipers.
Months earlier, after the president spent an hour meeting with people who lost family members and the survivors of a shooting at a Texas high school, one of the mothers who lost a child described Trump’s presence in the private gathering as polarizing.
“It was like talking to a toddler,” she said.
Trump remained mostly out of sight Tuesday, even on Twitter. White House aides said the president spent the day meeting with staff and preparing for Wednesday’s travel.
“This is a very, very serious moment in our country’s history,” Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters. “This president recognizes the gravity of this moment.”
Americans overwhelmingly blame the mental health system, racism and white nationalism and loose gun laws for a series of mass shootings that have shaken communities across the country, according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll this week.
Nearly three of four Democrats said some of the responsibility should be held by the president, who has been criticized for racist tweets and provocative rhetoric aimed at Latinos, Muslims, blacks and others. That compared with just 23% of Republicans.
White House officials declined to say where within El Paso and Dayton the president is traveling, citing security concerns. The president is expected to visit Dayton first.
Critics questioned Trump’s sincerity in dealing with mass shootings, noting he backed away from an initial tweet calling for “strong” background checks for gun purchases. During subsequent remarks at the White House on Monday, Trump called on the nation to condemn “racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
What’s next: Trump vows action but offers few specifics after shootings
Democrats, including those who are making gun control an issue in the 2020 election, said Trump’s words after the shooting don’t erase his previous statement.
“This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso,” tweeted O’Rourke, who once represented the city in Congress.
“We do not need more division,” he said. “We need to heal. He has no place here.”
Contributing: The Arizona Republic
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