The horrific mass shooting on Wednesday at a South Florida high school in which 17 were killed highlighted President Trump’s glaring deficiencies. Rather than face the nation, he hid. He did not come out to speak to the country; his press secretary had no briefing on Wednesday. All he could manage were perfunctory tweets on Wednesday and again Thursday morning. (“My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting,” he said Wednesday. “No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”) This morning he was the impassive observer, already spinning to cast this as a mental health crisis. “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” Was he blaming victims, or just blathering? He could muster only a written statement directing flags be flown at half-staff. Again, his only reaction is in writing. One cannot imagine Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton behaving in such a fashion.
The role of consoler in chief is utterly beyond Trump. It’s hard to envision him delivering a moving eulogy, as presidents before him have done. He adeptly channels and elicits anger from his base, but he has no compassion offer the country.
His inability to address bloodletting in American schools — which takes many more lives than do Islamist-inspired terrorists — underscores his priorities. It is never the “right time” to talk about a response to school shootings; yet before facts are known in the wake of a jihadist-inspired slaying, he’s always at the ready to devise anti-immigrant measures. Trump is content to say that nothing can be done about mass slayings (we must be resigned to evil in the world, he would have us believe) — unless they are motivated by Islamist fundamentalism. In the case of white supremacists or disturbed teenage murderers, any proposal regarding guns is flyspecked and dismissed if it would not have prevented this particular attack; with Islamist terrorism, no such causal relationship is required (i.e. he used the October 2017 terror attack in New York as an excuse to propose doing away with family reunification immigration).
And then there is Congress. More than four months after the mass slaying in Las Vegas, the Republican-controlled Congress has done exactly nothing, even on the limited issue of banning bump stocks. There is no gun-oriented reform (expanded background checks or preventing people on the no-fly list from buying guns, for example) that is deemed acceptable; no inconvenience to gun owners, no matter how small, can be tolerated.
On the budget front, Republicans are unwilling to fund common-sense measures that might prevent gun violence or enhance school safety. To the contrary, in its mode of hollowing out government, Congress rolls back existing funding. (“President Donald Trump’s newly unveiled budget would cut millions of dollars from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which gun dealers use to verify if someone is banned from buying a gun before selling it to them.”) It tries to harass so-called sanctuary cities by threatening funding rather than supporting local priorities, which might include school safety. Congress might be willing to pay $10 million to $30 million for a parade, but new money to train school officials or retrofit schools with bulletproof glass, door blocks for classrooms, security cameras and alarm systems? Not interested. It has lost the revenue in voting for cuts for the rich and corporations, you see. (Trump is also proposing significant cuts in the Education Department’s budget.)
Republicans, including Trump, like to say that the gun problem is really a mental health problem. But on that front, Republicans want to do less, not more. As part of “health-care reform,” the GOP-led Congress wanted to scale back Medicaid, which in 2015, for example, “covered 22% of nonelderly adults with mental illness and 26% of nonelderly adults with serious mental illness.” (In addition, Medicaid “covers many inpatient and outpatient mental health services, such as psychiatric treatment, counseling, and prescription medications. Medicaid coverage of mental health services is often more comprehensive than private insurance coverage.”) In his 2019 budget proposal for the Health and Human Services Department, Trump proposes “a 21 percent decrease from 2017 funding levels.”
Trump is emotionally and politically inert — useless, really — in these ordeals. Congress is little better. So long as the anti-gun-measure extremists and anti-government Republicans dominate the federal government, we shouldn’t expect much from the feds. That leaves it to state and local officials and legislatures, parent activists and voters. Acknowledging the iron grip of the National Rifle Association does not mean we cannot do something more than send “thoughts and prayers.”
UPDATE (11:25 a.m.): The president has finally come out to make a statement on Florida. The president said he planned to visit Parkland. “To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you — whatever you need, whatever we can do to ease your pain.” He did not refer to guns or the shooter; no word if he will propose more funding for mental health or schools. Almost a year ago, he signed a bill “rolling back an Obama-era regulation that made it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase a gun.” The NRA heartily applauded that action.