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Trump Uses a Day of Healing to Deepen the Nation’s Divisions

The New York Times logo The New York Times 8/8/2019 Michael Crowley, Maggie Haberman, Mitch Smith and Michael D. Shear

 

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EL PASO — President Trump visited Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso on Wednesday on a day intended as a show of compassion to cities scarred by a weekend of violence, but which quickly devolved into an occasion for anger-fueled broadsides against Democrats and the news media.

Mr. Trump’s schedule was meant to follow the traditional model of apolitical presidential visits with victims, law enforcement officials and hospital workers after calamities like the mass shootings that resulted in 31 deaths in Dayton and El Paso and that created a new sense of national crisis over assault weapons and the rise of white supremacist ideology.

That plan went awry even before Mr. Trump, who has acknowledged his discomfort with showing empathy in public, departed Washington. On Tuesday night, he tweeted that Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from El Paso, should “be quiet.” As he prepared to leave the White House on Wednesday morning, he went after former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said in a speech that day that Mr. Trump had “fanned the flames of white supremacy.”

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Both Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Biden are running for president and have been particularly harsh in their criticism of Mr. Trump after the two shootings, and Mr. Trump rose to the bait.

The result was the latest example of Mr. Trump’s penchant for inflaming divisions at moments when other presidents have tried to soothe them, and further proof of his staff’s inability to persuade him to follow the norms of presidential behavior.

Mr. Trump himself finished the day claiming success. “We had an amazing day,” he told reporters in El Paso. Of his earlier stop in Dayton, he said, “The love, the respect for the office of the presidency — I wish you could have been in there to see it.”

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Yet shortly after, in response to questions about his Democratic critics, he again assailed them. “They shouldn’t be politicking today,” Mr. Trump said, referring to Mr. Biden and Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who accompanied Mr. Trump to a hospital in Dayton. And en route home to Washington, he tweeted still more attacks on Democrats, calling their charges that he is a racist “truly disgusting.”

He was particularly upset by excerpts from a news conference in Ohio featuring Mr. Brown and Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, that he had seen while flying from Dayton to El Paso. Both officials took a mostly respectful tone toward the president and said he had been received graciously. But Mr. Brown also said that some people at the hospital had privately said they do not support Mr. Trump, and he charged that the president had used racist and divisive language.

Mr. Trump reacted with fury. As his plane soared toward a restive El Paso, he shouted at aides that no one was defending him, according to a person briefed on what took place.

Mr. Trump visited the two red-state cities after intense criticism that his fixation with illegal immigration has stoked white nationalism and that he has failed to take meaningful action, including by backing substantial gun control measures, to combat mass shootings in the United States.

Mr. Trump was greeted in both Dayton and El Paso by protests of unusual size for a presidential visit at a time of collective grief.

a man holding a sign: Protesters during Mr. Trump’s visit to Dayton. © Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times Protesters during Mr. Trump’s visit to Dayton.

In Republican-leaning Dayton, small groups of demonstrators waved signs that read “Dump Trump” and “Do Something!” His supporters, who insist that his language is not to blame for the actions of deranged individuals, and that calls for him to embrace gun control do not address the root causes of gun violence, turned out in smaller numbers.

The reception was especially bitter in El Paso, a border city that Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized and where many people blame his anti-immigrant messaging and talk of a cross-border “invasion” for inspiring the gunman who killed 22 people at a Walmart here.

Protesters staged a daylong demonstration in a park near the University Medical Center of El Paso, and when Mr. Trump arrived at a nearby police emergency operations center, a group greeted him with a large white bedsheet that had the words “Racist, go home” written on it. At a memorial site in a parking lot near the Walmart, where mourners had erected small white crosses and left hundreds of flowers, balloons and candles, the appearance of a woman in a red “Make America Great Again” hat provoked shouting and profanity, prompting state troopers to intervene and urge calm.

Even as the president denied that he had “fanned the flames of white supremacy,” as Mr. Biden had asserted, Mr. Trump repeated his past claim of equivalence between extremists on the left and right.

“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” the president told reporters before leaving the White House. “Any group of hate, I am — 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.”

That response had echoes of Mr. Trump’s characterization of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 that left a counterprotester dead. After initially condemning white supremacy, the president later said that violence had been committed “on many sides.”

In recent days, Mr. Trump’s aides have also sought to draw attention to other acts of violence committed by people who have expressed leftist political views. They include the 2017 shooting of a Republican representative, Steve Scalise, at a softball practice by a man with a history of anti-Republican diatribes. But many current and former law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned that white nationalist violence is growing into a major domestic terrorist threat.

In his comments to reporters on Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump repeated his previous attacks on undocumented immigrants and called Mr. Biden, his leading Democratic presidential rival, “a pretty incompetent guy” who has “truly lost his fastball.”

The president held back from making any further public statements once he arrived in Dayton later in the morning, visiting privately with families and victims of the shooting over the weekend as well as emergency and medical personnel at Miami Valley Hospital. But while his spokeswoman said the event was never meant as a photo op, Dan Scavino, the president’s social media director, posted pictures on Twitter. “The President was treated like a Rock Star inside the hospital, which was all caught on video,” he tweeted. “They all loved seeing their great President!”

The White House quickly followed up with campaign-style video featuring images of Mr. Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, shaking hands with emergency medical workers and chatting with smiling hospital workers.

Mr. Brown and Ms. Whaley joined Mr. Trump on the visit to the hospital, where they said they each pressed the president to take more aggressive action to pass universal background checks for gun ownership.

In a news conference soon after Mr. Trump departed Dayton for El Paso, Mr. Brown and Ms. Whaley said the president refused to commit to signing such a bill, but told them that he would “get things done.” Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump told reporters that he supported background checks, as he has before, but he did not provide details about what legislation he might approve.

Mr. Brown said Mr. Trump “was received as well as you can expect by the patients.”

“They are hurting,” Mr. Brown said. “He was comforting. He and Melania did the right things. It’s his job in part to comfort people. I’m glad he did it.”

But later on Air Force One, the president soon attacked the senator and the mayor on Twitter. “Their news conference after I left for El Paso was a fraud,” the president wrote. “It bore no resemblance to what took place.”

Mr. Scavino added on Twitter, “They are disgraceful politicians, doing nothing but politicizing a mass shooting, at every turn they can.”

After departing from El Paso, Mr. Trump was on the attack again. Reflecting his anger over television coverage of his day, which prominently featured the protests in both cities, he tweeted that the “Fake News” media “worked overtime trying to disparage me and the two trips, but it just didn’t work. The love, respect & enthusiasm were there for all to see.”

In Dayton, the main protest, which drew about 100 people, materialized along a stretch of South Main Street, in a grassy field a few blocks from the hospital where Mr. Trump was visiting some of the shooting victims.

Jim Madewell, 71, a retired printing press foreman who said he lives 100 yards from the Dayton suspect’s house, said the president’s language “throws gasoline on the fire,” and that leads to violence. “He feeds on negativity and hate and fear,” Mr. Madewell said.

As in Dayton, protesters gathered in El Paso ahead of Mr. Trump’s arrival. Judy Lugo, the president of the Texas State Employees Union, said Mr. Trump should not have come.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Ms. Lugo said. “The people here need to mourn, they need to be left alone.”

Michael Crowley reported from El Paso; Mitch Smith from Dayton, Ohio; and Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Matt Stevens and Daisuke Wakabayashi from New York; Katie Rogers and Sheryl Gay Stolberg from Washington; Rick Rojas from El Paso; and Campbell Robertson from Dayton.

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