Amid allegations that his caustic rhetoric about immigrants prompted a killer to gun down 22 people at an El Paso Walmart last week, President Donald Trump visited the border city Wednesday to offer his condolences.
He did not go quietly. And he faced a decidedly mixed reception in El Paso, after a stop in Dayton, Ohio, site of an unrelated mass shooting early Sunday.
“We had an amazing day,” Trump said in El Paso. “The love, the respect for the office of the presidency — I wish you could have been in there to see it.”
“I saw you on television the other day and you were fantastic,” he told one officer who responded to the Walmart shooting.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and El Paso Mayor Dee Margo — all Republicans — were on hand to meet Trump when Air Force One landed at 3:25 p.m. Dallas time.
But the local congresswoman snubbed him, saying she refused to provide political cover for a president whose rhetoric bore a striking similarity to a rambling manifesto explaining the gunman’s motives for driving 600 miles from North Texas to repel so-called Hispanic invaders.
“I refuse to be an accessory to his visit,” freshman Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat, said in an online post. “I refuse to join without a dialogue about the pain his racist and hateful words & actions have caused our community and country.”
Trump and first lady Melania Trump headed to University Medical Center of El Paso to visit with relatives of the 22 people killed, some of the roughly two dozen people injured, first responders and hospital staff.
A few blocks away, hundreds of anti-Trump El Pasoans packed Washington Park for a protest, where the mood was one of indignation.
“We’re a friendly, welcoming city,” said Guadalupe Fresas. “But to have this man come here is too much. He’s pushing our tolerance. We’re mourning. Our kids go back to school next week, and they’re scared. He’s adding salt to the wound.”
Outside the hospital, a group of between 40 and 50 Trump supporters organized by the local Republican Party held signs that said, “Welcome President Trump” and “God bless El Paso and President Trump.”
Many of them were clad in red or Trump rally shirts and clothing with the American flag.
Carmen Terrazas, 67, from Silver City, N.M., said she came to support Trump. She said his visit showed leadership.
“It shows that he is for all people. It doesn’t matter where they stand. Love him or hate him, he’s here for all of us,” Terrazas said.
Others took a more cynical view.
“Whether he comes or not, he’ll be condemned,” said Jesse Avila, a 48-year-old Trump supporter.
Leaving the White House on Wednesday morning, Trump vehemently deflecting any blame for inspiring the attack in El Paso, which targeted Hispanics, even though the killer’s racist manifesto echoed much of his own anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Cornyn and Cruz echoed his call for better background checks and steps to keep firearms away from felons and people with mental illness. But such legal restrictions wouldn’t have stopped the El Paso shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, north of Dallas.
Trump insisted that his rhetoric doesn’t promote antagonism or division, but “brings people together.”
“My critics are political people,” several of them “very low in the polls,” he said. “These are people that are looking for political gain.”
Hours before leaving the White House, Trump revived his attacks on Escobar’s predecessor in Congress, Beto O’Rourke, demanding he “be quiet!” out of respect for victims and law enforcement. And he revived a schoolyard taunt that O’Rourke uses a “phony” Hispanic nickname for political advantage; in fact O’Rourke’s parents were calling their son by that common nickname for Robert since before he left the hospital as a newborn.
A presidential candidate and last year’s Democratic Senate nominee against Cruz, O’Rourke has long railed against Trump’s immigration policies and he embarrassed Trump by organizing a large counter-rally when the president campaigned in El Paso in February.
I have publicly said he has a responsibility to acknowledge the power of his words, apologize for them, and take them back because they are still hanging over us. I asked for a call so I could say this to him over the phone and ask for a dialogue that could lead to healing.
— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) August 6, 2019
I was told that @realDonaldTrump is “too busy” to have that conversation.
I declined the invitation because I refuse to be an accessory to his visit. I refuse to join without a dialogue about the pain his racist and hateful words & actions have caused our community and country.
— Rep. Veronica Escobar (@RepEscobar) August 6, 2019
O’Rourke hit back an hour after the president’s post, tweeting that “22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism.”
“El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I,” he wrote.
On Wednesday morning, O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, joined mourners at a solemn memorial for victims at a high school. Afterward, he announced that he has scrapped a three-day trip to Iowa that was to start with a traditional “soapbox” appearance at the state fair Friday, and that he will stay off the campaign trail for an indefinite period to focus on his hometown and the aftermath of the killings.
22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I. https://t.co/dakFPKj0vJ
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 7, 2019
Democrats sniped throughout the day at Trump, and he punched back.
“We have a problem with this rising tide of white supremacy in America, and we have a president who encourages it and emboldens it,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, stumping in Vermont, prompting Trump to hit back from Air Force One as he flew from Ohio to Texas: “Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring!”
On Monday, Trump delivered a televised address from the White House in which he denounced the killings and white supremacy but also blamed violent video games. He rejected critics’ assertions that his relentless attacks on immigrants and unfounded claims that migrants bring disease and that their ranks are filled with rapists and murders played any role in the rampage.
Eight of the people killed at the bustling El Paso Walmart were Mexicans from Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s sister city across the Rio Grande, and Mexico’s government has demanded better protection for its citizens in the United States. One was from Germany. The rest were El Paso residents.
Democrats have condemned Trump for stirring ethnic tensions. Many called him a white supremacists and a racist.
As he left the White House on Wednesday morning, Trump swatted aside allegations that by vilifying immigrants, he has inflamed ethnic tensions and put at risk Americans who look Hispanic.
“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate. I don’t like it. Any group of hate — whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s Antifa” — a leftist group, he said. “And I’ll do something about it.”
He vowed to press for tougher background checks for gun buyers and to curb white supremacy and hate groups, though he didn’t offer any specifics.
“I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people, or people with rage or hate, sick people,” he said. He rejected any restrictions on assault-style guns, insisting “there is no political appetite for that at this moment.”
Friction in Dayton
In Dayton, where a shooting early Sunday left nine dead, Trump spent two hours at Miami Valley Hospital with survivors and first responders.
Later, Trump falsely accused Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, both Democrats, of painting his visit in a bad light by asserting that he’d received a poor reception at the hospital. Neither had said that, at least in public. Brown told reporters after Trump’s visit that the president seemed to provided comfort to patients, and that both he and the mayor had lobbied him to support a ban on assault-style weapons and other gun control measures.
Whaley was befuddled at the complaint.
“We said he was treated very well. I don’t know what he’s talking about misrepresenting,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “Oh well. He lives in his world of Twitter.”
The White House social media director, Dan Scavino, insisted on Twitter that “the President was treated like a Rock Star inside the hospital, which was all caught on video.”
Trump stayed miffed for hours.
At El Paso’s emergency operations center, Trump congratulated one of the heroes of the attack, a soldier who had run into the store and rescued some children. But he also grumbled that he hadn’t gotten adequate credit for comforting Ohio victims.
“They shouldn’t be politicking today,” he said. “They’re very dishonest people.”
The White House did not allow journalists to witness any of the interactions, with press secretary Stephanie Grisham insisting that this was not a “photo op.” The White House released its own official photos and video later.