As President Donald Trump departed the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday, he told officials traveling with him the visit was a smash success.
After flashing thumbs-up and taking selfies with nurses and staff, Trump deemed the reception at the level 1 trauma center — where dozens of victims were treated this weekend following a mass gun murder — sufficiently warm.
It was only later, as he watched from Air Force One while two local Democratic officials described their frustration at his divisive rhetoric and unclear gun control priorities, that he soured.
Jetting to the scene of a second massacre, Trump lashed out. Instead of imparting the sympathetic grief that his tour of killing zones was meant to illustrate, it was he who appeared aggrieved. And instead of highlighting his interactions with the shootings’ victims, it was his own perceived victimhood — at the hands of Democrats and the media — that he thrust upon two stricken communities.
By the time he was ready to return to Washington, the most memorable part of his trip, for him, seemed to be the doctors’ and nurses’ welcome of him, even after a day spent confronting the lingering pain of more mass shootings.
“We had an amazing day, as you know,” Trump said in the corridor of an emergency coordination center in El Paso, Texas, his final stop in a city where an anti-immigrant gunman had shot 22 people dead. “The love, the respect for the office of the presidency. It was, I wish you could have been in there to see it.”
Even as Trump was savoring respect for the “office of the presidency,” his words and behavior on a two-stop tour of American tragedy reflected a striking departure from the traditional role US presidents have played in consoling the nation.
Trump offered no visible emotion as he briefly spoke with reporters at the end of his trip. Instead of hitting themes of unity, he lashed out throughout the day at his political rivals, even as he traveled from trauma center to trauma center. When he wasn’t shown the deference he seemed to think he had earned, he and his aides mounted a fiery defense.
Trump was “treated like a rock star” at the Dayton hospital, his social media adviser Dan Scavino tweeted.
Since Monday, Trump has adopted a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona when it comes to responding to the dual shootings. While he issued a call for national unity during a direct-to-camera speech delivered from a teleprompter on Monday, he’s resumed the bitter partisan attacks on Twitter against those he sees as rivals.
And while he departed the White House on Wednesday proclaiming a desire to “stay out of the political fray,” it was only a few hours earlier he had been telling Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke to “be quiet” after he said Trump was not welcome in El Paso.
At the White House, aides recognize that Trump’s tone and demeanor are closely scrutinized during his visits to the scenes of tragedy. That includes by many Republicans, who have lamented Trump’s seeming inability to strike a unifying or consoling tone for more than a few days after moments of national crisis.
Among Trump’s aides, there is a tacit acknowledgment that Trump does not view national unity as a driving mission in the way past presidents have sought to bring the country together. Instead, he has at most moments appeared more focused on driving a divisive political message, including in his capacity as President.
While he has expressed intense interest in appearing “presidential,” including through the military trappings of the job, he has not eagerly adopted the tone his predecessors have used from the Oval Office or other official settings.
Instead, he’s been more eager to blame those predecessors for what he sees as their own shortcomings in office.
When Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, raised the prospect of an assault weapons ban with Trump on Wednesday, she said he questioned why his predecessor hadn’t done it.
“Why didn’t Obama get this done?” Trump asked, according to Whaley’s recollection.
As the President winged between Dayton and El Paso, he revealed through Twitter an agitated mindset that was a distant cry from the sober-minded teleprompter speech he had delivered Monday.
He complained about television coverage from his usual standby, Fox News. And he attacked former Vice President Joe Biden, whose speech linking Trump to white supremacy was playing on television screens aboard Air Force One.
Apparently displeased with how his stop in Dayton was portrayed by local officials in a news conference, Trump – with help from aides – claimed Whaley and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio were “mischaracterizing” his visit to the hospital.
“I get on Air Force One, where they do have a lot of televisions,” Trump told reporters later as he lamented Brown’s and Whaley’s news availability. “They’re very dishonest people.”
It wasn’t truly clear what Trump was disputing. In their news conference, Brown and Whaley criticized Trump for his stance on gun control and rhetoric they said was divisive. But they acknowledged Trump was met well at the Miami Valley Hospital.
“He was received well by the patients, as you’d expect,” Brown said. “They were hurting, he was comforting. He did the right things, Melania did the right things. And it’s his job in part to comfort people. I’m glad he did it in those hospital rooms.”
“I think the victims and the first responders were grateful that the President of the United States came to Dayton,” Whaley added.
Later, in an interview on CNN, Whaley said she wasn’t sure what Trump meant.
“Sen. Brown was next to me the entire time,” she said. “The senator was there. We talked about these issues. I think that’s pretty hard to say we were both lying.”
If there is any dispute about what occurred inside the hospital, independent news coverage won’t be available to clarify. Reporters were kept in a holding room away from Trump and the first lady as they greeted staffers and victims.
The press was not included because the visit was not “a photo op,” according to White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
But later, the White House distributed its own photos from inside the hospital and a slickly produced video showing the President greeting staff, set to serious-sounding music.
Trump continued his offensive throughout his flight home to DC, this time targeting Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, complaining about being accused of racism and describing the “love, respect & enthusiasm” he found meeting people Wednesday in two communities rocked by tragedy.