The Las Vegas and New York City attacks were just 30 days apart
Trump's varied reactions highlight his instincts
When 58 people were killed last month by a white gunman in Las Vegas with no apparent ties to Islamist terrorism, the White House rejected a policy debate on gun control as inappropriate in the days following the tragedy.
But when eight people were mowed down in a terrorist attack by a man shouting “Allahu akbar,” President Donald Trump pounced almost immediately, seizing on the tragedy to push his proposals for tightening immigration controls.
There was more than a double standard at work: it was just the latest example of Trump’s knee-jerk instinct to politicize terrorist attacks to advance his policy agenda and rally his political base, which has cheered Trump’s hardline posture on terrorism and his efforts to curtail Muslim immigration. Just 30 days apart, Trump’s response to the two attacks underscored the pattern of his wildly different attitudes about how the US should respond to attacks carried out by those inspired by radical Islamist ideology and those with no such motivations.
In his first public remarks the day after the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, Trump offered thoughts and prayers to the Las Vegas victims and remarked on the heroism of first responders, but offered no hint of policy action.
“Today is a day for consoling the survivors, and mourning those we lost,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said on behalf of the White House later that day. “There’s a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country.”
The next 24 hours – and the 24 hours after that, etc. – were also not an appropriate time to discuss potential legislation to address the scourge of gun violence, which has claimed vastly more US lives than terrorism on American soil since 2001.
“At some point, perhaps that will come. But that’s not for now. That’s for – at a later time,” Trump told reporters on the second day of mourning, which he reiterated the next day, too.
Thirty days later, when an apparently radicalized Muslim man allegedly rammed through a crowd of bikers and pedestrians in New York City, killing eight, there was not a mark of hesitation or wariness about disturbing the sanctity of mourning.
“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program,” Trump tweeted about six hours after initial reports of an attack. “Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”
The next morning, Trump pressed forward with a laser focus on US immigration measures, explaining in a tweet that the terrorist suspect “came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program’” and lobbed an attack at one of New York’s own senators, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter).”
Sanders defended herself and the President from cries of hypocrisy in the wake of Trump’s tweets and insisted during a briefing Wednesday that Trump wasn’t politicizing the situation.
“This wasn’t about going the political route. This is something that, frankly, the President’s been talking about for a long time. This isn’t a new policy, this isn’t a new position, this isn’t a new conversation,” Sanders said. “We’re talking about protecting American lives.”
Sanders also denied having claimed it wasn’t appropriate to talk about policy in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, even though she directly rejected questions about the President’s position on gun control policy by saying it was too early for a policy conversation.
During the campaign and into his presidency, Trump has been quick to jump to conclusions after reports of an apparent terrorist attack, sometimes within minutes of initial reports and nearly always before local officials have officially reached the conclusion that the attack amounted to terrorism.
Trump’s reaction to the attack in New York was similar to his response to the killing of 49 people in a nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016 by a shooter who pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Then-candidate Trump responded by suggesting that President Barack Obama was either not tough enough or was being willfully blind to the threat from such attackers. He later gave a speech that warned that terrorists were being allowed to flow into the US because of a failed immigration system and delivered a speech unveiling his proposals for “extreme vetting.”
Asked to reconcile his responses to the attacks in Orlando and Las Vegas, Sanders suggested Trump had adopted a different tack since assuming the mantle of the presidency.
“I think there’s a difference between being a candidate and being the President,” she had said.
Trump clearly did not perceive that distinction on Tuesday as he dove right into the part of political provocateur, igniting a debate on immigration within hours of the New York attack.
Trump took a similar tack after an attack in London last month, while British police were still investigating the cause of an explosion on a London Underground train.
“Another attack in London by a loser terrorist,” Trump tweeted. “The travel ban into the United States should be far larger, tougher and more specific-but stupidly, that would not be politically correct!” he added.
The tweets earned Trump a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said it is “never helpful for anyone to speculate on what is an ongoing investigation.”
But Trump, earning plaudits from his supporters for his reaction and lack of “political correctness,” was unrepentant even as he faced a backlash in the US.
Just two months earlier, Trump had been slow to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis as responsible for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia – and later blamed counter-protesters, too – and defended himself by insisting that he “wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement.”
“You don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts,” Trump said then.
The pattern proved itself out once again in October, a month that began with the mass shooting in Las Vegas and ended with the terrorist attack in New York.
Local and federal officials had already labeled the attack in New York as terrorism by Tuesday evening, based on the suspect’s shouts of “Allahu akbar,” evidence of his allegiance to ISIS and the trademark style of the truck attack. And the White House confirmed Trump’s tweet that the assailant, Sayfullo Saipov, entered the US through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which awards visas to vetted individuals randomly selected from countries where there is a low rate of immigration to the US.
But while in Las Vegas, officials are still struggling to determine the gunman’s motives for his attack on an outdoor concert venue, they have determined that his shooting spree was aided by the use of bump stocks, a device that speeds up the rate of fire of semi-automatic weapons to mimic automatic fire.
Despite early signs of support from Democrats and Republicans alike for legislation that would limit access to bump stocks, a bill on the matter has stalled and Trump has not offered his support for the measure, choosing instead to tread cautiously on an issue that touches on the Second Amendment, a lightning rod for conservatives in his base.
Pressed on the President’s support for legislation on bump stocks, Sanders dodged, pointing to the delicate environment.
“Right now, our focus, as we’ve said over the last couple of days, has been on healing and uniting the country,” Sander said from the White House briefing room. “Members of both parties and multiple organizations are planning to take a look at bump stocks and related devices. We certainly welcome that – would like to be part of that conversation.”
But she added: “At this point, again, I don’t think that we want to go out and start having – and making rash decisions, while we’re still in an open investigation.”
Trump, for his part, said the same day “we’ll be looking into (bump stocks) in the next short period of time.”
A month later, the country is still waiting. But now Trump has shifted his attention elsewhere – to an attack in New York involving a man who shouted “Allahu akbar.”
This story has been updated.