“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” the president said, reading from a script that scrolled on a teleprompter in front of him. He added, “Now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside — so destructive — and find the courage to answer hatred with unity, devotion and love.”
That unifying message stood in stark contrast to more than 2½ years of name-calling, demonizing minorities and inflaming racial animus, much of it carried out on Twitter. Just two hours before his White House speech, Trump tweeted an attack on the “Fake News” media for contributing to a culture of “anger and rage.” And in another set of tweets, the president suggested pairing “strong background checks” with “desperately needed immigration reform” — then dropped the matter entirely during his speech.
Such is the picture of a divisive leader trying to act as a healer, particularly in the aftermath of Saturday’s anti-immigrant attack in El Paso, where officials are still investigating but believe the alleged gunman posted a manifesto that echoed Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigrants, including describing his attack as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Trump, in tweets and in rallies, has repeatedly decried the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants across the nation’s southern border.
The episode and its immediate aftermath illustrate the limits on Trump's ability to speak to the whole nation in a time of tragedy, given both his rhetoric and his focus on appealing primarily to the part of the electorate that voted for him in 2016 and still supports him now.
As White House officials privately scrambled to plan a visit for Trump later this week to El Paso and Dayton, Ohio — where another gunman killed at least nine and injured at least 27 early Sunday morning — the president found himself unwelcome in the grieving Texas border city.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), whose district includes the El Paso Walmart involved in the massacre, urged the president and his team “to consider the fact that his words and his actions have played a role in this.”
“From my perspective, he is not welcome here,” Escobar said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. “He should not come here while we are in mourning.”
Former president Barack Obama issued a forceful call Monday for the nation to “soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.”
In a statement posted to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, Obama warned that such language has been at the root of most human tragedy, from slavery to the Holocaust to Rwandan genocide.
Although Obama never mentioned Trump by name, the statement amounted to a tacit rebuke of the president by a predecessor who has largely kept himself out of the public eye since leaving the White House.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, defended Trump’s handling of the El Paso and Dayton shootings and praised him for condemning racism, white supremacy and bigotry.
“He was unequivocal and specific, and I think equal parts grief-stricken, angry and resolved to take action,” Conway told reporters in the driveway of the White House.
Conway also praised her boss for restraining himself from attacking the Democratic presidential candidates who blamed Trump for the shooting.
“They spent most of the weekend on TV screaming and preening, lying in many ways, and I thought expressing some condolence but also just taking potshots at the president and some of his closest advisers, calling them names,” Conway said. “There’s a difference between those who want to be president and try to politicize things and he who is the president and did not respond in-kind today in his remarks.”
Other White House officials pointed to what they described as over-the-top language from Democrats — some of whom called Trump a racist and implied his rhetoric made him at least partially culpable.
As the shootings unfolded, Trump spent the weekend secluded at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Key advisers — including Conway, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, national security adviser John Bolton — were not at the club.
Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller led the effort to write Monday’s response, with four or five people pitching in, according to two people familiar with the efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions. The group consulted previous speeches the president had given following tragedies, including after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville left one dead and after a 2017 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, one of the people said.
Trump spent part of the weekend complaining to allies and club members about media coverage that seemed to blame him for the shootings, two people familiar with his comments said. But, these people added, Trump was not visibly upset or at what they would describe as a “nuclear level.”
The president also offered significant input to the speech, two White House officials said. But according to photographs and videos posted on Instagram, Trump also found time for leisure as he milled about his private property. He was spotted wearing his golf attire and posing for photos with guests, including with a couple holding their wedding reception at Bedminster.
White House aides wanted Trump’s 10 a.m. Monday speech to be the decisive message on the shootings, and on Sunday night and Monday morning talked to him about what he would say and how the tone would be “presidential,” a White House official said.
There had been no internal discussion about linking immigration legislation to background checks — as the president tweeted Monday — because there was no plan to mention that in the speech, White House officials said.
The policy outlines mentioned by the president were scattershot at best — many of them unlikely, poorly defined or marginal in impact. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said.
Tom Bossert, a former Homeland Security adviser, said the White House should seize the moment to push bold policy changes. “The country is really galvanized on this right now,” he said. “The president and the people around him should not be worried about the politics and should be trying to figure out how to tie together records of mental health problems and records of gun ownership and everything that goes into keeping them accurate and updated.”
But for critics of Trump, his teleprompter remarks felt perfunctory and even disingenuous.
“If you laid that speech next to videos of his rallies, it’s mind-boggling,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser Obama. “He said what you’d want the president to say. The problem is that in real life, he’s a provocateur, not a healer, and his whole political project depends on those provocations. And so how long will it be before he returns to ‘Twitter Trump’ stirring the pot? How long before the next rally when he uses the dehumanizing language that he decried in his remarks today?”
Indeed, the president has a history of walking back his more conciliatory comments and retreating into the incendiary language he believes his base prefers. After Charlottesville, for example, Trump faced a storm of criticism for condemning “violence on many sides,” prompting him to deliver teleprompter remarks admonishing white supremacists — only to backtrack again by saying there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Current and former administration officials said Trump can be persuaded to strike a more unifying tone, but will quickly revert if he faces criticism from the news media or Democrats.
Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer and executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, said that “Twitter is the closest to Donald Trump’s core that you’re going to get publicly.”
When he reads from a teleprompter, O’Brien added, Trump has little “tells” — those moments when he goes off script. The president did so at the end of his remarks Monday, when he accidentally blessed the memory of “those who perished in Toledo” — even though the shootings were in Dayton and El Paso. (When the White House sent out an official transcript of his speech, they had simply crossed out “in Toledo” from the text).
The message that sends, O’Brien said, is “that he just doesn’t care enough, that he isn’t steeped in the details, that he wasn’t checking in over the weekend with his people, that he wasn’t making plans to go there, that he wasn’t in touch with the governor of Ohio and the mayor of Dayton.”
On Monday morning, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, said she had not received a call from the president but had heard he was planning a visit for Wednesday.
“And, you know,” she added, “he might be going to Toledo.”