President Donald Trump flew Wednesday to the sites of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, dismissing critics who say his rhetoric on race and immigration has stoked violent extremism.
Leaving the White House for a first stop in Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were gunned down over the weekend, Trump said he’d meet “with first responders, law enforcement, some of the victims, and paying my respects.”
But Trump’s job of consoler in chief is complicated by charges that his own messaging — in particular his vilification of illegal immigrants – has emboldened political extremists.
At the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were murdered in a Walmart frequented by many Hispanic people, the killer published a manifesto echoing Trump’s repeated description of illegal immigration as an “invasion.”
Trump pushed back at the White House, saying “I think my rhetoric brings people together.”
“My critics are political people, they’re trying to make points. In many cases they’re running for president,” the Republican told reporters.
One of those critics, Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, was to pile on the pressure later Wednesday with a speech accusing Trump of fanning “the flames of white supremacy.”
“Trump offers no moral leadership, no interest in unifying the nation,” the text of Biden’s speech said. “We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism, and division.”
Protests are expected in both Dayton and El Paso, even if demonstrators are likely to be kept far from the president.
And Dayton’s Democratic mayor Nan Whaley bluntly promised to give Trump a piece of her mind, telling him “how unhelpful he’s being.”
“The people should stand up and say they are not happy,” she told journalists Tuesday.
In El Paso, the US-Mexico border town Trump will visit before returning on Air Force One to Washington, local Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar said she’d stay clear.
“From my perspective, he is not welcome here. He should not come here,” Escobar said Tuesday on MSNBC.
Even the city’s Republican mayor offered only a grudging welcome, stressing icily that he would greet Trump in his “official capacity.”
Trump is infuriated by accusations that his administration is deliberately dividing the United States on racial lines.
“I am the least racist person. Black, Hispanic and Asian Unemployment is the lowest (BEST) in the history of the United States!” he tweeted Tuesday.
But his campaign speeches and tweets repeatedly link Hispanic migrants to murder, rape and invasion. As recently as May, the president laughed and made a quip when a supporter at one of his rallies yelled that they should “shoot” illegal immigrants.
Trump has also railed crudely against a string of ethnic minority Democratic opponents.
Where Trump and his mostly leftist opponents agree is on the unambiguous designation of the two events as terrorism.
Massacres by mostly lone gunmen are all but routine in the United States, where guns are easy to obtain legally and mass killings have taken on a sort of cult status in extreme circles.
Hardline defenders of gun ownership have long resisted portrayal of such tragedies as anything more than random, localized events.
But Trump on Monday said he had told the FBI to treat such crimes as “domestic terrorism.”
On Wednesday, Trump also said that Republicans and Democrats were “close” to agreeing on stronger background checks for people purchasing firearms — a measure opposed by gun rights lobbies.
“I think background checks are important. I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with rage or hate,” Trump said.
However, he said “there is no political appetite” for banning military style assault weapons, which are widely available and are often chosen by mass killers.