After back-to-back mass shootings in two states of the US over the weekend spurred widespread condemnation of his rhetoric and style, US President Donald Trump chose to suppress his instinct to attack his rivals, at least for now.
Trump has spent a large part of the summer engaged in attacks on four minority congresswomen and an African-American lawmaker from Baltimore, accusing them of “hating America and Israel”. He has also long railed against illegal immigrants, characterising a surge of asylum-seekers to the US from Central America as an “invasion”.
That rhetoric and his hardline immigration policies have exposed Trump to sharp criticism since a lone gunman, who law-enforcement authorities say apparently was driven by racial hatred, killed 22 people in a Walmart store in El Paso, a Texas city that sits on the border with Mexico, on Saturday.
The Texas rampage was followed just 13 hours later by a mass shooting in Ohio and came a week after a man shot dead three people at a California garlic festival before killing himself. In Dayton, Ohio, a gunman in body armour and a mask killed nine people in less than a minute and wounded 27 others in the downtown historic district before he was shot dead by police.
While the motive behind the Dayton shooting remains unknown, the shooter in El Paso, Patrick Crusius, 21, was charged with a single count of capital murder on Monday, in what is likely a legal place-holder to keep him in custody while the investigation is under way. A Texas prosecutor said the state will seek the death penalty against Crusius if he is convicted.
Authorities have cited a lengthy anti-immigrant manifesto, apparently posted online by Crusius before the Saturday morning shooting in the heavily Hispanic border city, which they said was evidence that the bloodshed was racially motivated. Eight of those killed in the attack were Mexican citizens, according to the Mexican government.
The four-page statement uploaded to 8chan, a largely unmoderated online message board often used by extremists, called the Walmart attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It also expressed support for a gunman who killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
The “invasion” of Texas was exactly the same term Trump has repeatedly used in his efforts to build a wall along the border with Mexico and deport thousands of illegal immigrants.
“I call it ‘invasion,’” Trump said at the White House in March, defending his decision to send members of the US military to the border. “They always get upset when I say, ‘an invasion’. But it really is somewhat of an invasion.” He was also not bothered when his supporters chanted at a July rally that an American congresswoman he sharply attacked should be “sent back” to the country where she was born, Somalia.
He smiled at another rally in Florida when an audience member said one way to deal with the tide of immigrants would be to shoot them. Clearly Trump has not specifically endorsed indiscriminate violence, but critics, especially Democrats and minority leaders, believe that he has used jingoism and fear mongering about immigrants in a way that has let white nationalists thrive.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional panel on 23 July that the Bureau had recorded about 100 arrests of domestic terrorism suspects in the preceding nine months and that most investigations of that kind involved some form of white supremacy.
However, in a carefully scripted speech Trump delivered at the White House on Monday he condemned “white supremacy” in clear words, probably for the first time. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.”
He also blamed violent video games, mental illness, the Internet and a culture that promotes violence for helping to foster white nationalism and gun violence. Shortly after his speech, the White House announced Trump was due to pay a visit to El Paso on Wednesday.
A person regularly in contact with Trump and the White House told Reuters that the republican president understood that some of his rhetoric may have gone too far and could jeopardise his chances for re-election in November 2020. “He recognises that, in a lot of ways, he is playing with fire and walking a tightrope,” the source said.
When Trump spoke at the White House on Monday about the shooting in El Paso and the weekend’s other massacre in Dayton, Ohio, he tried to focus on empathy for the victims and condemnation of the killers, as well as bigotry, racism and white supremacy.
He did not engage with democrats and others who have linked the violence to his inflammatory tweets and comments that have been widely criticised as racist. Advisers said the tone and formal staging of Trump’s remarks were designed to demonstrate leadership during a difficult time.
“There is a renewed desire by many people to show him as being presidential,” a second source close to the White House said. “When you have a national tragedy, that’s what the country wants. They don’t want vitriol, they don’t want rhetoric, they don’t want verbose propaganda.”
In his speech on Monday, Trump emphasised that he wanted to show he would take action. But he stayed away from suggesting any sweeping changes to gun laws, and there were no details of how he would deliver on his list of ideas: more resources to address hate crimes, reforming mental-health laws, working with social-media companies on tools to detect potential mass shooters, addressing video-game violence, and keeping guns away from people known to pose a risk of violence.
US gun-control activists say the Internet and video games cannot be blamed because they are also popular in countries where mass shootings are virtually unknown, in part because it is harder to obtain firearms.
Far from acknowledging the effect of his own words, the US president saw an opportunity to use the shootings in El Paso and Dayton to get Congress to make concessions on immigration. Trump tweeted on Monday morning that gun legislation could be tied to the immigration legislation he has long sought.
“That’s a joke. That’s an absolute joke that he’s going to tie this to the most polarising issue happening in the United States around immigration reform,” said Tim Ryan, an Ohio democrat who is running for president.
Other democrats in the 2020 presidential primary have accused Trump of himself being a racist and a white nationalist. Chief among them has been former representative Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native who blamed Trump in part for the shooting.
O’Rourke became frustrated with a reporter when asked what Trump could do to make things better. “What do you think?” O’Rourke said. “You know what he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.”
“Hold on a second. You know, it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just — I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway drew a contrast between Trump’s remarks and those of democrats, who she said had gone over the top with criticism in the hours after the tragedy. “Trump did not respond in kind today in his remarks. He put politics and partisanship aside,” Conway told reporters.
Trump has a history of making inflammatory remarks, then backing down, and then making them again. Some republicans said that tendency if it occurs with regard to the shootings could hurt him in 2020.
“That’s an issue,” said republican strategist Charlie Black, adding that Trump needed to continue with his new message. “We’ll see what he does and if he sticks to it.”
At some point, Trump probably will defend himself against his critics, said Chris Barron, a pro-Trump republican strategist. “The president does punch back, and I think that it is highly unlikely that he’s simply going to take incoming from his political rivals who again view this tragedy as a club by which to beat the president about the head,” Barron said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump criticised after US shootings