DAYTON, Ohio — Protesters greeted President Donald Trump’s arrival in Dayton Wednesday, blaming his incendiary rhetoric for inflaming political and racial tensions in the country, as he visited survivors of last weekend’s mass shootings and saluted first responders.
The president and first lady Melania Trump began their visit at the hospital where many of the victims of Sunday’s attack were treated. Reporters traveling with the president were kept out of view, but White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted that the couple had “been stopping between rooms to thank the hardworking medical staff. Very powerful moments for all!”
Outside Miami Valley Hospital, at least 200 protesters gathered, hoping to send a message to the president that they want action on gun control. Some said he was not welcome in their city. There were Trump supporters, as well.
Critics say Trump’s own words have contributed to a combustible climate that can spawn violence such as the outbreaks in Dayton and El Paso, Texas.
Trump rejected that assertion as he left the White House, strongly criticizing those who say he bears some responsibility for the nation’s divisions.
“My critics are political people,” Trump said, noting the apparent political leanings of the shooter in the Dayton killings and suggesting the man was supportive of Democrats.
“Had nothing to do with President Trump,” Trump said. “So these are people that are looking for political gain.”
He also defended his rhetoric on issues including immigration, claiming instead that he “brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well.”
Some 85% of U.S. adults believe the tone and nature of political debate has become more negative, with a majority saying Trump has changed things for the worse, according to recent Pew Research Center polling.
And more than three quarters, 78%, say that elected officials who use heated or aggressive language to talk about certain people or groups make violence against those people more likely.
In Dayton, the anger and pain were on display as protesters chanted “Ban those guns” and “Do something!”— now a rallying cry around the city.
Holding a sign that said “Not Welcome Here,” Lynnell Graham said she thinks Trump’s response to the shootings has been insincere.
“To me he comes off as fake,” she said.
Dorothee Bouquet, stood in the bright sun with her 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, tucked in a stroller. She told them they were going to a protest “to tell grownups to make better rules.”
But in El Paso, where more protests were expected, Raul Melendez, whose father-in-law, David Johnson, was killed in Saturday’s shooting, said the most appropriate thing Trump could do was to meet with relatives of the victims.
“It shows that he actually cares, if he talks to individual families,” said Melendez, who credits Johnson with helping his 9-year-old daughter survive the attack by pushing her under a counter. Melendez, an Army veteran and the son of Mexican immigrants, said he holds only the shooter responsible for the attack.
“That person had the intent to hurt people, he already had it,” he said. “No one’s words would have triggered that.”
Trump’s visits were be similar to those he’s paid to grieving communities in the past, with the Republican president and the first lady saluting first responders and spending time with mourning families and survivors.
“We’ll be meeting with first responders, law enforcement and some of the victims and paying my respects and regards,” Trump said Wednesday morning. “It’s a terrific opportunity, really, to congratulate some of the police and law enforcement. The job they’ve done was incredible. Really incredible”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday that Trump also wants “to have a conversation” about ways to head off future deadly episodes.
“We can do something impactful to prevent this from ever happening again, if we come together,” the spokesman said.
Trump said before leaving Washington that Congress was making progress on possible new gun legislation. He said he has had “plenty of talks” with lawmakers in recent days and that there is a “great appetite to do something with regard to making sure that mentally unstable, seriously ill people aren’t carrying guns.” He argued there is no such appetite for banning assault-style rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines.
But passage of a pending background check bill in the Senate remains unlikely. Support for a bipartisan measure reached a high-point with a 2013 vote after the Sandy Hook shooting but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance.
This White House also has invited internet and technology companies to a roundtable discussion on online extremism Friday. Trump is not expected to attend.
Trump, who often seems most comfortable on rally stages with deeply partisan crowds, has not excelled at projecting empathy in public, often mixing what can sound like perfunctory expressions of grief with awkward offhand remarks. While he has offered hugs to tornado victims and spent time at the bedsides of shooting victims, he has yet to project the kind of emotion and vulnerability of his recent predecessors.
Barack Obama grew visibly shaken as he addressed the nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre and teared up while delivering a 2016 speech on new gun control efforts. George W. Bush helped bring the country together following the Sept. 11 attacks, notably standing atop the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center, his arm draped over the shoulder of a firefighter, as he shouted through a bullhorn.
Trump, too, has been able to summon soothing words. But then he often quickly lapses into divisive tweets and statements — just recently painting immigrants as “invaders,” suggesting four Democratic congresswoman of color should “go back” to their home countries even though they’re U.S. citizens and deriding majority-black Baltimore as a rat-infested hell-hole.
Even on the eve of his trip, Trump was lashing out at a potential 2020 rival, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who had tweeted that Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and “should not come to El Paso.”
O’Rourke “should respect the victims & law enforcement – & be quiet!” Trump snapped back on Twitter.
In Dayton, Mayor Nan Whaley said she would meet with Trump, but she said she was disappointed with his scripted remarks Monday responding to the shootings. His speech included a denunciation of “racism, bigotry and white supremacy” and a declaration that “hate has no place in America.” But he didn’t mention any new efforts to limit sales of certain guns or the anti-immigration rhetoric found in an online screed posted just before the El Paso attack.
The hateful manifesto’s author — police believe it was the shooter but investigation continues — insisted the opinions “predate Trump and his campaign for president.” But the words echoed some of the views Trump has expressed on immigration, Democrats and the media.
Whaley said simply, “Everyone has it in their power to be a force to bring people together, and everybody has it in their power to be a force to bring people apart — that’s up to the president of the United States.”