The weekend’s mass shooting in El Paso is particularly troublesome for Trump because it appears to explicitly overlap with two of his political priorities: curtailing immigration from Mexico and defending the ability of Americans to own a broad range of firearms. A short screed posted online before the attack that appears to have been written by the alleged shooter includes language mirroring Trump’s own rhetoric on an “invasion” of migrants. In many places, the document makes overt the subtext of a lot of Trump’s political rhetoric, like Trump’s past claims that Democrats want immigrants to enter the country so that they eventually vote Democratic. The post makes the same questionable claims that Trump’s White House has made about immigrants taking jobs.
Trump’s initial reaction to the El Paso shooting and a subsequent one in Dayton, Ohio, was what we would expect: a tweet of commiseration and some commentary about doing . . . something.
“A lot of things are being done right now,” Trump said when speaking to reporters while on his way back to Washington from his private club in New Jersey. Congress is on recess until next month.
On Monday morning, Trump had a more specific proposal.
“We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain,” he wrote on Twitter. “Likewise for those so seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!”
It’s incredibly telling that Trump sees these mass shootings as something that Democrats want to end. He sees new legislation that would expand background checks — something that consistently has the near-universal support of the American public in polling — as a bargaining chip for him to use to get something he wants. In this case it’s new immigration restrictions. But he might as well have said anything: new corporate tax cuts, voter ID rules, you name it. Trump thinks that preventing gun violence is a Democratic priority, not an American one. He offers the thinnest olive branch possible and considers it something that he can use to extract concessions from the opposition.
That he chose immigration restrictions as the Republican bargaining position in this case, though, is staggering. This is, after all, exactly what that screed linked to the El Paso shooter called for. While criticizing both parties for the current state of immigration, the author of the document also wrote that “[a]t least with Republicans, the process of mass immigration and citizenship can be greatly reduced.”
Two mornings later, the Republican president whose rhetoric is peppered throughout that document proposes that an effort to limit the number of guns available for mass shootings like the one in Texas should be paired with a policy to greatly reduce immigration.
Trump is obviously sympathetic to the arguments articulated in the document. He has kept explicit white nationalism at a distance partly out of political necessity, but it occasionally cracks through to the surface. His campaign was predicated on the rhetoric included in that document. A former FBI supervisor who spoke with The Washington Post claimed that the bureau is wary of engaging fully with white supremacists in a way that “targets what the president perceives as his base.”
Shortly after Trump’s tweet offering to trade fewer gun deaths for the sort of immigration reform the author of the manifesto hoped to see, the president identified one addressable cause of mass shootings.
“The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country,” he tweeted. “Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”
The train of thought here is easy to follow. Trump is hearing that those who oppose immigration and those embracing loose gun laws are to blame for the shooting in Texas, but since those groups are also central to his base, he can’t similarly blame them. So he scans his perceived enemies for someone to blame — “Immigrants? Probably won’t work this time,” etc. — and lands on his preferred target.
The media were a focus of that document linked to the El Paso shooting, too. “The media is infamous for fake news,” it reads, itself a direct echo of Trump. “Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.”
Stunningly, Trump's excoriation of the media was, in part, a defense of himself. In this moment, he decided to complain about the media coverage of twin events in which nearly 30 people were killed because the media understandably linked his rhetoric and his failures to address gun violence to those killings. His tweet was a reminder to his base: The media is unfair to me.
If you think that's reading more into Trump's tweet than is warranted, consider his next tweet, a retweet of a message sent in December 2018.
A subtle reminder from the president: Trump is standing up for Americans, not instead fostering anti-immigrant rhetoric and turning his back on a flood of high-powered weapons that blankets the country.
In his comments to reporters on Sunday, Trump claimed, as he has in the past, that he inherited this problem, a way of pushing the blame elsewhere. He’s not wrong, of course, but the responsibility is now his to address. He doesn’t seem to be embracing that role, to put it mildly.
His comments on Monday morning may not be his final proposals. But they were his first reactions, and that by itself tells us a lot.