President Trump was met by both supporters and protesters Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, as he sought to serve as healer-in-chief for two communities in mourning after the latest fatal mass shootings.
Trump visited hospitals and spoke with local leaders in both cities. But even as the president sought to lend a calming presence to those who were grieving, he launched broadsides at Democratic officials and 2020 rivals who decried him for sowing division and for not doing enough on gun control.
Leaving the White House Wednesday, Trump disputed claims that his rhetoric has contributed to the violence, saying he “brings people together.” But critics say an anti-immigration screed authorities linked to the shooter that gunned down 22 people in an El Paso Walmart Saturday mimicked Trump’s language of an “invasion” in Texas.
In his first stop, Trump thanked first responders and hospital staff, and met with victims of the Dayton shooting and their families. Trump later visited with survivors of the El Paso shooting. He praised first responders and hospital staff in both cities, saying they “have done an incredible job.”
President Trump traveled to hospitals in Texas and Ohio Wednesday to console victims recovering from mass shootings that left 31 dead, and he pledged to advance gun-control legislation, declaring himself “all in favor” of expanded background checks.
Incredible afternoon in El Paso, Texas. We love you, and are with you, all the way! pic.twitter.com/pTNhHapx86
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019
With Democrats heaping more blame on the president for the shootings and some Republicans favoring new gun laws, Mr. Trump met with families, first responders and law-enforcement officials in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, where the scenes of carnage from last weekend have turned to public anger and demands for action.
The president and first lady Melania Trump met with several shooting victims in their hospital rooms.
The people I met today in Dayton are the finest anywhere! pic.twitter.com/sBxKZWExcR
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
“You had God watching,” Mr. Trump said, according to the White House. “I want you to know we’re with you all the way.”
The president called it “an amazing day,” filled with “the love, the respect for the office of the presidency.”
Mr. Trump told reporters earlier in the day that he is working with congressional leaders in both parties on legislation focusing on more background checks for firearms purchases.
“There is a great appetite for background checks,” Mr. Trump said at the White House. “I’m looking to do background checks. I think background checks are important.”
The White House also has invited internet and technology companies for a discussion on violent extremism online Friday. The meeting will include senior administration officials with representatives of a range of companies, a White House aide said.
The session is expected to focus on violence, not on hate speech.
While many Democrats are calling for a ban on so-called assault weapons that were used in both shootings, the president said “there is no political appetite” in Congress for a ban.
“You have to have a political appetite within Congress,” Mr. Trump said. “I have not seen it with regard to certain types of weapons.”
As he left Washington, Mr. Trump said he wanted to focus on the heroic actions of first responders and others and to “stay out of the political fray.” Democrats seemed determined not to allow that to happen. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden said in a speech in Iowa the shootings were proof that Mr. Trump is a failed leader, blaming his “toxic” rhetoric for inciting violence.
As Mr. Trump stepped off Air Force One in Dayton, Mayor Nan Whaley and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio urged the president to call on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the Senate back into session this week to vote on a House-passed bill that would expand background checks on firearms sales.
The two Democrats held a press conference after the president’s hospital visit, with Mr. Brown describing how he repeatedly confronted Mr. Trump behind the scenes. He said he pressed the president for a public commitment to the background-check legislation.
“I asked the president to promise to me, and to the American people, that he will sign that bill after he’s spoken out in support of it with Sen. McConnell,” Mr. Brown told reporters. “He only said that ‘We will get things done.'”
The senator also asked Mr. Trump not to repeal Obamacare if he’s concerned about treatment of mental illnesses for people who potentially have access to guns.
At the hospital, Mr. Brown said, the president told a group of more than two dozen police and first responders that he wanted to give “honors and awards” to officers who responded to the shooting and killed the gunman before he could enter a crowded bar.
Mr. Brown said he told the president in front of the group, “The most important thing you can do for these police officers is take these assault weapons off the streets.”
The mayor said she was glad that Mr. Trump didn’t visit the city’s Oregon entertainment district, where the shooting happened. Both pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators were in the district during the president’s visit.
“I think it was a good decision for him not to stop in the Oregon district,” she said. “A lot of people who own businesses in that district aren’t interested in him being there. His talk can be very divisive, and that’s the last thing we need. The people of Dayton are waiting for action from Washington, D.C.”
She added grudgingly, “I think the victims and the first responders were grateful that the president of the United States came to Dayton.”
Mr. Brown agreed that the president and first lady were “comforting” to the victims.
On his way to Texas, the president disputed the accounts given by Mr. Brown and the mayor about his visit. He said they were “totally misrepresenting what took place inside of the hospital.”
“Their news conference after I left for El Paso was a fraud,” Mr. Trump tweeted aboard Air Force One. “It bore no resemblance to what took place with those incredible people that I was so lucky to meet and spend time with. They were all amazing!”
He called Mr. Brown a “failed presidential candidate.” The president said he “had it” with Mr. Brown after invited him on the hospital tour, then saw the senator on TV later questioning the appropriateness of the president’s visit.
“They shouldn’t be politicking today,” he told reporters later. “They’re very dishonest people.”
The White House didn’t allow journalists to accompany the president into the hospitals, saying it wanted to respect the privacy of the patients.
In El Paso, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar snubbed an invitation from the White House, attending a rally instead where attendees chanted for a ban on assault weapons and for “Beto” — former El Paso congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has compared Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to the “Third Reich.”
Referring to the president, Ms. Escobar told the crowd that “someone is visiting” their city.
“I felt it was important that we come together and not focus on the visitor, but focus on El Paso,” she said. “This country has had a long and painful journey with racism. I am going to stand with you as we say no to hate.”
In an address to the nation Monday after the shootings, Mr. Trump didn’t mention universal background checks, focusing instead on “red flag” legislation that would keep guns out of the hands of people deemed high-risk or mentally ill.
Following last year’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Mr. Trump edged toward endorsing background checks, calling them “common-sense measures that protect the rights of law-abiding Americans.” But after a meeting with officials from the National Rifle Association, he didn’t push for legislation.
On Wednesday, the president didn’t specifically refer to a long-standing proposal by Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, and Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, for expanded universal background checks. Mr. Trump did emphasize gun control in the context of preventing mentally ill people from owning firearms.
“I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with rage or hate, sick people,” the president said. “I think we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before. I think both Republicans and Democrats are getting close to a bill or doing something like background checks. I’m all in favor of it.”
He said he is in discussions with leaders in both parties, and it’s possible that Congress would interrupt its six-week-long August recess to address legislation.
“If we get close, I will bring them back,” the president said. “But … we have to see where we are with leadership. You have two sides that are very different on this issue. I’ve already got meetings scheduled. And I have had plenty of talks over the last two days. I think … we’re going to come up with something that’s going to be really very good, beyond anything that’s been done so far.”
White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway said the Toomey-Manchin bill “could have bipartisan, bicameral support.”
The president said he doesn’t blame politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Bernard Sanders who have been linked to supporters who carried out mass shootings. The shooter in Dayton reportedly was a supporter of Ms. Warren’s presidential candidacy and a left-wing devotee of the antifa extremist group.
“I don’t blame Elizabeth Warren, and I don’t blame Bernie Sanders, in the case of Ohio,” the president said. “I don’t blame anybody. These are sick people. These are people that are really mentally ill, mentally disturbed. It’s a mental problem.”
Democrats have blamed Mr. Trump in particular for the shooting in El Paso, where the gunman espoused white supremacist and anti-immigrant views. On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut called Mr. Trump “the primary cheerleader” for a network of hate groups in the U.S.
Mr. Trump responded, “I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate. 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 and I’ll do something about it.”
“I don’t think my rhetoric does at all [incite violence],” the president said. “I think my rhetoric brings people together.”
Mr. O’Rourke, a back-of-the-pack candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been particularly harsh in his criticism of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying the president has “given people permission” to commit mass murder.
“My critics are political people, they’re trying to make points,” Mr. Trump said. “In many cases, they’re running for president and they’re very low in the polls. As much as possible, I’ve tried to stay out of that. I think we have toned it down. We’ve been getting hit left and right from everybody.”
Among those who accompanied the president in Dayton was Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican whose district includes the city. The nine-term lawmaker with a 93 percent rating from the NRA came out this week in favor of an assault-weapons ban and limits on ammunition magazines.
His daughter was across the street from the shooting Sunday morning but was unharmed.
One measure approved by the House this year would expand background checks to all gun purchases, including private gun shows, which are now sometimes excluded. A second bill would allow more time to complete background checks. The House passed both measures in February with minimal Republican support.
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