President Donald Trump called for unity during a prepared White House address in the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend, but ahead of his trip to visit the communities impacted by gun violence, the consoler-in-chief was back to wedging a partisan divide on Twitter and in front of cameras.
Ahead of the President’s trip to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham suggested Tuesday that the President would rise above the rhetoric, tweeting that Trump “is a true leader.” She wrote that the visit would “be about honoring victims, comforting communities, and thanking first responders & medical professionals for their heroic actions.”
But Trump’s teleprompter-prepared talking points fell by the wayside overnight, when Trump and his senior staff returned to targeting Democrats, and when he again used the El Paso attacks to call for stronger immigration laws.
Shortly after visiting Dayton shooting victims at an Ohio hospital, the President and his aides returned to criticizing political opponents when he was back aboard Air Force One.
Traveling to Texas from Ohio, Trump’s top aides disputed the way Ohio Democratic officials characterized Trump’s visit, even though Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said the President was “received well.”
White House director of social media Dan Scavino claimed that Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Brown were “LYING & completely mischaracterizing what took place w/ the President’s visit to Miami Valley Hospital.”
Grisham accused Brown and Whaley of not acknowledging that the victims, families, medical staff and first responders were “so happy” to have the President and First Lady visit the hospital.
“It’s disgusting,” she told CNN.
“What I saw those two saying on TV immediately after we left was not what I saw in that hospital,” Grisham said. “The victims, families, medical staff and first responders were so happy to have their President and First Lady there. I just don’t know why that can’t be acknowledged. It’s disgusting.”
Still in the air, traveling between the two cities ravaged by gun violence, Trump indicated that he was watching former Vice President Joe Biden, who was delivering a speech critical of Trump from Iowa, by tweeting insults at him.
After tweeting attacks on Democrats during his flight to El Paso, Trump said his critics “shouldn’t be politicking today.”
“I get on Air Force One, where they do have a lot of televisions. I turn on the television and there they are, saying, ‘Well I don’t know if it was appropriate for the president to be’ —you know, etc., etc. You know, the same old line. They’re very dishonest people and that’s probably why he got, I think about 0% and he failed as a presidential candidate,” the President told reporters during his stop at El Paso’s Emergency Operations Center.
Trump started leaning into criticizing Democrats in the wake of the shootings shortly after midnight on Wednesday. In a pivot from his prepared remarks on Monday, he began attacking his political opponents, in a tit-for-tat response reminiscent of the language he used following deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, when he equally divvied up blame to white supremacist groups and what he called the “alt-left.”
“Beto (phony name to indicate Hispanic heritage) O’Rourke, who is embarrassed by my last visit to the Great State of Texas, where I trounced him, and is now even more embarrassed by polling at 1% in the Democrat Primary, should respect the victims & law enforcement - & be quiet!” Trump tweeted shortly after midnight.
Trump, in prepared remarks Monday, called on the nation to condemn racism and white supremacy, but stopped short of acknowledging his own divisive rhetoric, and Democrats, including the President’s opponents in 2020, seized on the fact that the alleged shooter in El Paso, is believed to have authored a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto. They say Trump’s rhetoric was reflected in the language of the document.
By daybreak Wednesday, Trump was also tweeting about the Dayton shooter “supporting political figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and ANTIFA,” despite the fact authorities have not determined a political motivation for the perpetrator.
More coverage on the El Paso and Dayton shootings
A Twitter account that appears to belong to the Dayton gunman retweeted extreme left-wing and anti-police posts, as well as tweets supporting Antifa, or anti-fascist, protesters. The account retweeted messages supporting Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as posts against ICE agents, including one that said, “these people are monsters,” and multiple posts condemning police, and supporting Antifa protesters.
But while the El Paso gunman posted a manifesto with a clear ideology that motivated his shooting that was tied to similar themes that the President has espoused, the Dayton shooter, based on what the FBI has said, has not suggested a political motivation. Investigators described it as a fixation on violence and killing.
The President, for his part, claimed Wednesday that he’s toned his rhetoric down.
He told reporters ahead of his visit Ohio and Texas, “We have toned it down. We’ve been getting hit left and right from everybody … (including) a couple of people from Texas, political people from Texas that aren’t doing very well,” he said.
“I don’t think it works because I would like to stay out of the political fray,” he continued.
Trump said “tried to stay out” of politically dividing aspects of the mass shooting which happened over the weekend, even though he went after O’Rourke, Warren and Sanders on Twitter hours beforehand.
He also dredged up the Dayton shooter’s social media history again.
“My critics are political people. They’re trying to make points. In many cases, they’re running for President and they’re very low in the polls. A couple of them in particular very low in the polls. If you look at Dayton, that was a person who supported, I guess you would say, Bernie Sanders, I understood, Antifa, I understood, Elizabeth Warren, I understood – had nothing to do with President Trump,” Trump said.
Trump also said he doesn’t believe his rhetoric causes violence.
“No, I don’t think my rhetoric has at all. My rhetoric brings people together,” he told reporters.
Asked whether he regrets using the term “invasion” to describe immigrants coming into the US illegally, Trump responded, “I think that illegal immigration is a terrible thing for this country. I think you have to come in legally. Ideally you have to come in through merit.”
“We need people coming in because we have many companies coming into our county – they’re pouring in. And I think illegal immigration is a very bad thing for our country. I think open borders are a very bad thing for our country, and we’re stopping. We’re building a wall right now. … We need strong immigration laws. But we want to allow millions of people to come in because we need them,” he continued.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond and Nikki Carvajal contributed to this report.