Standing next to a Marine helicopter as it prepared to whisk him off to Andrews Air Force Base, President Trump spoke briefly with reporters outside the White House on Wednesday morning about the weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio. Those cities were his destinations for a day-long trip aimed at having the president assuage the nerves and concerns of the affected communities.
His remarks before departing probably didn’t have that effect.
Trump seems incapable of considering the massacres outside of the context of partisan politics, as a zero-sum game of punditry and cause. Consider the first question he was asked by a reporter who was difficult to hear over the helicopter: What do you say to your critics who say your rhetoric emboldens white nationalists and inspires anger?
“So my critics are political people. They’re trying to make points,” Trump said. “In many cases they’re running for president, and they’re very low in the polls. A couple of them in particular, very low in the polls.”
Saturday’s shooting in El Paso, which left 22 people dead at a Walmart, was allegedly carried out by a shooter who authorities believe posted an anti-immigrant screed online before he opened fire. The overlap between the comments in that document and Trump’s past rhetoric isn’t complete, but it exists. Trump, as many people who aren’t running for president have noted, has continuously attacked immigrants as dangerous, diseased or criminal. He has conflated asylum seekers with illegal immigrants broadly and referred to groups seeking to escape violence in Central America as an invasion.
Yes, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke — who is indeed faring poorly in the polls — has criticized Trump. But he’s far from the only one. Nonetheless, it’s how Trump reframes and redirects the questions: There’s no sincere concern, just politics.
The attack in Ohio appears to have stemmed from a different motivation. It was carried out by a gunman who had a fixation on violence, according to federal investigators. But he also had a Twitter account in which he retweeted messages supporting Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as posting comments in support of antifa, the often violent anti-fascist movement. And that, according to Trump, made the two shooters similarly motivated by politics.
“If you look at Dayton, that was the person that supported, I guess you would say, Bernie Sanders, I understood. Antifa, I understood. Elizabeth Warren, I understood,” he said. “It had nothing to do with President Trump.”
This point has been raised by a number of Trump supporters this week, including Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday morning. The El Paso shooter was on the right, the Dayton shooter was on the left, let’s call the whole thing off.
Except, of course, that the El Paso shooter was explicit in citing rhetoric that echoed Trump’s as his motivation. It was a shooting that the FBI has classified as terroristic and a hate crime indicating that it’s believed that the act was carried out for political reasons. The Dayton shooting has received no such designation.
But, to Trump, focusing on the El Paso shooter’s motives is just Democrats playing politics.
“They’re trying to make political points,” Trump said later of political critics. “I don’t think it works, because, you know, I would like to stay out of the political fray.”
He then immediately tried again to suggest that the Dayton shooter was a Democrat.
“As I was saying, it just came out, the Dayton situation, he was a fan of antifa, he was a fan of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” he repeated. “Nothing to do with Trump, but nobody ever mentions that.”
He didn’t blame the senators, he said, but, instead, mental illness.
Trump was pressed on solutions to the shootings, and he offered some support for expanded background checks. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, however, reports that Trump sees a background-check expansion as being a win for Democrats, not a policy that should be enacted. Trump made that point publicly in one of his first tweets after the shooting incidents, suggesting that background checks would need to be coupled with new immigration restrictions — with an unspoken articulation that both political sides should get something.
Another reporter later asked Trump if he was concerned about an apparent uptick in white supremacist violence. What, the reporter asked, would Trump do about it?
“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” Trump replied. “I don’t like it, any group of hate, whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s antifa, whether it’s any group of hate, I am very concerned about it, and I’ll do something about it.”
Note, again, how Trump responds. It’s the flip side of his post-Charlottesville comment: There are very bad people on both sides.
Members of the loosely knit antifa movement have been involved in acts of violence. An anarchist who claimed to be affiliated with antifa attacked an immigration facility in Washington last month. (He was killed without injuring anyone.) But the focus of the two groups is quite different. Antifa battle fascism, defined fairly loosely and often overlapping with government authority. White supremacists target black, Hispanic and Jewish people. Those are very different groups being targeted, with very different amounts of power. Only one, white supremacy, has been the identified motive for multiple mass shootings in the past year.
But it offers a counterpoint. It was the same way at Charlottesville, where some antifa were present. Their side has bad guys, too, Trump said both then and now — deliberately erasing the important distinctions between the two groups. And also, it’s important to note, tacitly aligning his politics with the white nationalists.
Asked directly about it, Trump declined to say that he regretted using language that was also used in the El Paso shooter’s screed.
“I think that illegal immigration — you’re talking about illegal immigration, right? Yeah? I think illegal immigration is a terrible thing for this country,” Trump said, declining to address the shared used of the word “invasion” in his rhetoric and the shooter’s. “I think you have to come in legally. Ideally, you have to come in through merit. We need people coming in because we have many companies coming into our country. They’re pouring in. And I think illegal immigration is a very bad thing for our country. I think open borders are a very bad thing for our country. And we’re stopping.”
The El Paso shooter’s screed disagreed about the need for legal immigration to help companies, though he similarly complained about low-skill migrants. He also lashed out at “open borders,” rhetoric central to Trump’s immigration politics. (At a rally in El Paso in February, Trump claimed that “the biggest proponents of open borders are rich liberals and wealthy donors.”) The shooter’s goal, according to the document, was to scare migrants away from coming to the United States. To deter them, in other words.
“The media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric,” the shooter’s document reads near its conclusion. “The media is infamous for fake news.”
Trump was asked again about the extent to which his rhetoric contributed to violence before boarding Marine One.
“No, I don’t think my rhetoric has at all,” Trump replied. “I think my rhetoric is a very — it brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well.”
He then started talking about how poorly China is doing by contrast. Soon after, he boarded the helicopter and then Air Force One, heading to Ohio and then Texas.
In between those visits, he watched former vice president Joe Biden criticize his response to the shootings. Before landing in El Paso, Trump couldn’t resist a tweet.