Donald Trump's dangerous rush to judgment

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: New York officials deserve credit for being cautious in their statements on the terror bombing
  • GOP nominee irresponsibly rushed to respond before the facts were in, he says

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Even as police and FBI investigators were scrambling to gather evidence and track down who set off a bomb in the middle of Manhattan, an unseemly political game was afoot, as conservatives attacked two leading Democrats -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton -- for not immediately speculating that a terrorist bombing had taken place.

As a New Yorker who was in the city on the day of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center -- on 9/11, I watched in horror from my front door as the towers burned -- I commend local politicians for being cautious, measured, thoughtful, accurate and disciplined about saying only what they know for sure.
    That's what New Yorkers expect, and it's the standard all leaders should follow -- including presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has an unhealthy habit of making wild public guesses, congratulating himself if he gets it right and pretending his wrong guesses never happened.
    Less than an hour after the Chelsea bombing, with the fate of dozens of wounded innocents still unknown and the cause not yet confirmed, Trump blurted out to a campaign crowd: "I must tell you that just before I got off the plane, a bomb went off in New York and nobody knows exactly what's going on. But boy, we are living in a time—we better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough. Just happened. So we'll find out. It's a terrible thing that's going on in our world, and in our country, and we are going to get tough and smart and vigilant. And we're gonna end it. We're gonna end it."
    Trump said this before anything was known about the nature, extent or intent of the attack or the fate of the victims. From the standpoint of those of us who frequent the neighborhood near where the bomb went off -- my news channel is located in Chelsea Market -- Trump's statement was worse than useless.
    Get "very, very tough" with who? And promising "we're gonna end it" begs the question: End what, and how?
    It's easy for an outsider like Trump, who has never served in public office, to spout off about how "nobody knows exactly what's going on." But officials on the front lines, like de Blasio, know the importance of never straying beyond the known facts, even at the risk of being labeled soft or clueless by outsiders.
    Over the the last two decades, as New York City has endured frightening terrorist attacks, deadly storms, a blackout, a crippling transit strike, natural gas explosions, the assassination of police officers and outbreaks of Ebola, Legionnaires' disease and Zika, we've learned to be patient as the city's formidable army of emergency-response professionals go to work.
    Our political leaders then hold a string of public briefings with a polished, official tone that is long on facts and strenuously avoids speculation.
    In a typical emergency briefing de Blasio, like his predecessor Mayor Mike Bloomberg, speaks surrounded by a phalanx of world-class police, fire, health, sanitation and transportation officials who each have decades of experience. The commissioners, if called upon, take the podium and deliver facts with a cool air of command.
    The overall effect is designed to project competence, resilience and resolve to a public that demands it from public officials.
    That style occasionally clashes with the impulse to rush to judgment. Some journalists criticized de Blasio for not leaping to the conclusion that the Chelsea bombing was a terrorist attack.
    "When are you prepared to use the word terror?" a reporter asked. "I mean, by the dictionary definition or legal definition — whatever the motivation is, this was an act that harmed many people, the bombing."
    That drew a stern rebuke from de Blasio.
    "It could have been something personally motivated. We don't know yet," the mayor said. "We will keep the public informed every step of the way, as we get actual real evidence."
    That degree of caution didn't slow the investigation one bit. Within two days, law enforcement officials -- including the interagency Joint Terrorism Task Force, which happens to be based in Chelsea -- had tracked down hard evidence, identified a suspect and took him into custody.
    Bravo for them.
    Trump, meanwhile,was busy congratulating himself.
    "I was criticized for calling it correctly," the candidate said. "What I said was exactly correct. I should be a newscaster because I called it before the news."
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    Obviously, newscasting is about more than guesswork. Earlier this year, Trump "called it" wrong on EgyptAir Flight 804 which crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing 66. Trump tweeted -- without evidence -- that the deadly disaster "Looks like yet another terrorist attack ... When will we get tough, smart and vigilant? Great hate and sickness!"
    Months after Trump's "newscast," officials are sifting through evidence, trying to sort out the cause of the crash, which remains unknown.
    We all hope there will be no more attacks on New York or any other city in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. But if disaster does strike, it's nice to know that New York officials will stick to what actually works, and leave Trump and others to blow hot air.