As of Monday, three days after authorities identified the bomber as a 63-year-old Nashville-area resident, Trump still had not commented personally on the event. He spent the day at Trump International Golf Club as part of a winter vacation that is scheduled to continue through Sunday.
Trump’s silence has offered another example of a president who, since his election defeat last month, has been consumed by his own political troubles and detached from the duties of his office as he wages a baseless assault on the integrity of the U.S. election system. But it is also consistent with a commander in chief who has, over nearly four years, quickly sounded alarms about violence he has connected to Muslim groups, foreigners or left-wing social movements in the United States — but been slower to denounce attacks from right-wing actors or others who do not serve his political agenda.
The FBI and local authorities are still investigating the possible motive of Anthony Q. Warner, who police say detonated an RV packed with explosives outside an AT&T building in downtown Nashville. Warner, who was killed in the blast, was White. He was described by neighbors as a recluse who was unmarried and rarely ventured far from home. His political views, if any, are not known.
“It’s unprecedented that a president wouldn’t want to reassure the American public about a heinous terrorist act that occurred during one of the holiest days of the year,” said Bruce Hoffman, a homeland security and counterterrorism analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Even if he doesn’t want to call it terrorism, he could say he’s disturbed by an act of deliberate violence and fortunately no one was killed.”
Trump aides disputed the suggestion that the president had not directly acknowledged the bombing, pointing to a statement Friday from White House spokesman Judd Deere, who said the president was “grateful for the incredible first responders and praying for those who were injured.”
But Trump made no mention of the bombing, even on his prolific Twitter account, where he had weighed in after other attacks. On Monday, after returning to Mar-a-Lago from his golf club, Trump promptly began tweeting and retweeting baseless claims about election fraud.
Tennessee political leaders from both parties, including Gov. Bill Lee (R) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R), have asked Trump to authorize emergency federal aid. Lee said he spoke with Trump on Sunday and believes that such assistance will be approved. A White House aide referred questions about the request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose spokeswoman has said it is under review.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper (D) said on CNN that he has not heard from Trump since the bombing.
“Imagine how Republicans would’ve reacted if a full bomb destroyed a whole block & Pres Obama didn’t address it,” tweeted Etan Thomas, a former National Basketball Association player and now a Democratic activist. Thomas also noted that Trump played golf over the weekend and did not sign a coronavirus relief package from Congress until late Sunday — after unemployment aid had lapsed. If former president Barack Obama had done the same, Republicans “would’ve lost their minds,” Thomas said.
President-elect Joe Biden, meanwhile, addressed the bombing Monday during a public meeting with his incoming national security advisers in Wilmington, Del.
Biden said law enforcement authorities in Nashville “are working around-the-clock to gain more information on motive or intent,” and he emphasized “the need for continuing vigilance across the board,” while thanking Nashville police for risking their lives, according to a pool report.
Past presidents have struggled to balance a desire to reassure the public and demonstrate resolve and leadership after such events with not wanting to compromise ongoing investigations by visiting the location or revealing too much information. Republicans criticized Obama for calling for stronger gun-control laws after mass shootings, while Democrats have criticized Trump for using terrorist attacks as a rationale to pursue tighter controls on immigration.
Trump has quickly denounced some mass-casualty attacks, often on the day they occurred, particularly those linked to Islamist groups. He denounced London’s mayor, who had criticized him, after attackers, purportedly inspired by the Islamic State, killed eight people and injured 48 in an attack on the London Bridge in June 2017, tweeting about the incident before it was over.
In October 2017, after an immigrant with allegiances to the Islamic State drove a rented truck onto a walkway in Lower Manhattan, killing eight and wounding 11, Trump tweeted on the same day: “My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you! … I have just ordered homeland security to step up our already extreme vetting program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this! … We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!”
Trump has spoken out in cases in which attackers have killed Jews, Muslims or immigrants, but in some cases, his remarks have come after several days and been more muted in assigning blame. This year, Trump denounced violence at social justice demonstrations in U.S. cities, accusing Black Lives Matter and other activists of being members of antifa and calling them domestic terrorists.
But he has equivocated when asked to denounce violence from far-right, white-supremacist groups, which his administration has labeled the gravest terrorist threat to the United States, ahead of foreign groups, according to Politico.
“Should the president be talking about this? Yes,” said Elizabeth Neumann, a former counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security who resigned in April and has since accused Trump of pouring “fuel on the fire” of far-right extremism through his policies and rhetoric.
In an interview, Neumann said that “even if we do not know it is technically terrorism from a statutory definition because we do not know the motive, he still needs to be talking about the fact that we’ve seen more and more instances of people that are carrying out acts of violence, and we need to do more to help those individuals before it gets to that point.”
In a statement Monday, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said he is monitoring the Nashville investigation amid heightened concerns over domestic terrorism.
Yet Neumann and other Trump critics said they were, to a degree, relieved that he has refrained from speaking publicly about the Nashville bombing, given his propensity for inflaming the nation’s political and social divisions.
“Frankly, the less the president says about most things, the better,” said Freddie O’Connell, a Nashville city council member who represents the area destroyed by the blast. He said he hopes Trump will authorize federal aid and otherwise stay out of the matter.
Noting Trump’s stream of unfounded allegations of election fraud, O’Connell added that as conspiracy theories have flourished online over the Nashville attack, “I’m not interested in the president’s outlook on any of that.”