“How do you stop these people? You can’t,” Trump lamented at a May rally in Panama City Beach, Fla. Someone in the crowd yelled back one idea: “Shoot them.” The audience of thousands cheered and Trump smiled. Shrugging off the suggestion, he quipped, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”
On Saturday, a 21-year-old white man entered a shopping center in El Paso, according to police, and allegedly decided to “shoot them.” Inside a crowded Walmart in a vibrant border city visited daily by thousands of Mexicans, a late-morning back-to-school shopping scene turned into a pool of blood. Twenty people died, and dozens were wounded.
After yet another mass slaying, the question surrounding the president is no longer whether he will respond as other presidents once did, but whether his words contributed to the carnage.
Since the moment Trump rode down his gold-plated escalator four years ago to start his renegade run for the White House, us-against-them language about immigrants has been a consistent and defining feature of his campaign and now of his presidency. Absent from his repertoire has been a forceful repudiation of the white nationalism taking rise on his watch.
Authorities in El Paso have not announced a motive in what they call an act of domestic terrorism, but at the center of their investigation is an anti-immigrant manifesto. Officials believe the shooter posted it shortly before he opened fire but continue to investigate.
Patrick Crusius has been named as the suspect.
Portions of the 2,300-word essay, titled “The Inconvenient Truth,” closely mirror Trump’s rhetoric, as well as the language of the white nationalist movement, including a warning about the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
The author’s ideology is so aligned with the president’s that he decided to conclude the manifesto by clarifying that his views predate Trump’s 2016 campaign and arguing that blaming him would amount to “fake news,” another Trump phrase.
The extent to which the El Paso shooter was motivated by the president’s words will be fiercely debated in the days to come, and could be answered by the investigation. But some Democratic leaders on Sunday said Trump’s demagoguery makes him plainly culpable.
Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso running for president, said it was appropriate to label Trump a white nationalist and said his rhetoric is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
“He doesn’t just tolerate it; he encourages it, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, warning of an invasion at our border, seeking to ban all people of one religion. Folks are responding to this,” O’Rourke said on CNN. He added, “He is saying that some people are inherently defective or dangerous, reminiscent of something that you might hear in the Third Reich, not something that you expect in the United States of America.”
Ensconced over the weekend at his New Jersey golf club, Trump was silent about the El Paso massacre other than a few tweets. In one sent Saturday night, he called the shooting “an act of cowardice” and said, “I stand with everyone in this Country to condemn today’s hateful act. There are no reasons or excuses that will ever justify killing innocent people.”
Although a press pool traveled with Trump to New Jersey, the president opted not to address the nation Saturday. He did, however, find time to stop by a wedding reception being held at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster and pose for photos with the bride, according to images circulating on social media.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump announced that he had ordered federal government flags flown at half-staff in honor of the El Paso attack and a mass slaying early Sunday in Dayton, Ohio, and that he would address the shootings Monday at 10 a.m.
“Hate has no place in our country, and we’re going to take care of it,” Trump said in Morristown, N.J., just before flying home to Washington. He did not respond to questions from reporters about the El Paso shooter’s manifesto but said generally that “this has been going on for years” and acknowledged that “perhaps more has to be done.”
Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, flatly dismissed the suggestion that Trump was to blame.
“Goodness gracious, is someone really blaming the president? People are sick,” Mulvaney said on NBC. He pointed to the manifesto, adding, “If you do read that, you can see him say that he’s felt this way for a long time, from even before President Trump got elected.”
Mulvaney acknowledged that “some people don’t approve of the verbiage that the president uses,” but he argued: “People are going to hear what they want to hear. My guess is this guy’s in that parking lot out in El Paso, Texas, in that Walmart doing this even if Hillary Clinton is president.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted that O’Rourke’s comments on CNN were “disgusting and wrong.” She added, “A tragedy like this is not an opportunity to reboot your failing presidential campaign.”
Regardless of the El Paso shooter’s motivations, Trump throughout his presidency has stoked fear and hatred of the other, whether Latino immigrants or black people living in cities or Muslims.
Although he has not directly espoused the “great replacement” theory of white supremacists, Trump has openly questioned America’s identity as a multiethnic nation, such as by encouraging migration from Nordic states as opposed to Latin America.
In speeches and on social media, the president has capitalized on divisions of race, religion and identity as a political strategy to galvanize support among his white followers. Last month he attacked four congresswomen of color and said they should “go back” to the countries they came from, even though three were born in the United States and all four are U.S. citizens. Most recently, Trump lashed out at Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), one of the highest-ranking black lawmakers, by calling his Baltimore district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and claiming that “no human being would want to live there.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University and expert on authoritarianism, said Trump has been strategic.
“This is a concerted attempt to construct and legitimize an ideology of hatred against nonwhite people and the idea that whites will be replaced by others,” she said. “When you have a racist in power who incites violence through his speeches, his tweets, and you add in this volatile situation of very laxly regulated arms, this is uncharted territory.”
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified in the Senate last month that the bureau has seen a recent uptick in the number of domestic terrorism arrests and that most involved some form of white supremacy.
But Trump has done little to vigorously confront this crisis that his own government is trying to combat. In the wake of the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Trump at first claimed there were good people on both sides before later backtracking, and only under pressure from his advisers.
And after a white supremacist was accused of killing 51 Muslims in New Zealand, Trump dismissed the idea that white nationalism was a rising threat, saying it was only “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics,” a history of the white nationalist movement, said the ugliest phenomena often develop in countries when there is a vacuum of moral leadership. Zeskind explained that white nationalism is autonomous from any political formation, but that Trump energizes its followers.
“He gives it voice. He’s their megaphone,” Zeskind said. He added, “Donald Trump, dumping on immigrants all the time, creates an atmosphere where some people interpret that to be an okay sign for violence against immigrants.”
On the campaign trail Sunday, many of the Democrats hoping to defeat Trump drew parallels between his rhetoric and the El Paso shooting and denounced his handling of white supremacy.
“I want to say with more moral clarity that Donald Trump is responsible for this,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said on CNN. “He is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry. He is responsible because he is failing to condemn white supremacy, and seeing it as it is, which is responsible for such a significant amount of the terrorist attacks.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) told reporters outside a church in Las Vegas: “The words of the president of the United States have consequences.” Trump, she added, has “the responsibility of elevating public discourse, of challenging us to rise to our best selves, to speak to our better angels — not to talk about people on both sides being equal. Not to appeal to hate and division.”
And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on CNN: “What he has got to understand is that when you have language that is racist, that is virulently anti-immigrant, there are mentally unstable people in this country, who see that as a sign to do terrible, terrible things.”
To experts in the field, the El Paso rampage was predictable. Frank Figliuzzi, a former head of counterintelligence at the FBI, wrote in a column published just four days earlier in the New York Times that Trump’s words eventually could incite bloodshed.
“The president has fallen short of calling for overt violence against minorities and immigrants, but unbalanced minds among us may fail to note the distinction,” Figliuzzi wrote. “If a president paints people of color as the enemy, encourages them to be sent back to where they came from and implies that no humans want to live in certain American cities, he gives license to those who feel compelled to eradicate what Mr. Trump calls an infestation.”
Chelsea Janes in Las Vegas and Felicia Sonmez and Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.