U.S. President Donald Trump is headed Wednesday to Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, where gunmen shot and killed a combined 31 people last weekend, two cities where many residents who blame the president’s rhetoric for fomenting the violence are urging him to stay away.
White House officials said Trump’s visits would be similar to those he’s paid to other grieving communities in the aftermath of mass shootings, including Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas, with the president and first lady Melania Trump saluting first responders and spending time with mourning families and survivors.
“What he wants to do is go to these communities and grieve with them, pray with them, offer condolences, and quite frankly offer thanks and appreciation to those first responders who put their lives on the line and were able to take out the shooter so quickly,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday. He said Trump also wants “to have a conversation” about ways to head off future deadly episodes.
But the planned visits highlight the ambivalence of some who question whether Trump, because of his often incendiary anti-immigration rhetoric, has the legitimacy to heal the grieving communities, especially in the heavily Hispanic El Paso, just across the border with Mexico.
The Democratic mayor of Dayton, Nan Whaley, said that while she was disappointed with Trump’s remarks following the shootings, she nonetheless would welcome the president to her city, hopeful his visit would “add value and help our community.”
In El Paso, some residents and local Democratic lawmakers said the president was not welcome and urged him to stay away. Beto O’Rourke, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination who formerly represented El Paso in Congress, said Trump’s remarks directly led to last Saturday’s massacre, and called on Trump to forego his planned trip to the city.
Hours before leaving Washington, Trump assailed O’Rourke on Twitter, saying, “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!”
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, however, said he will welcome Trump to the city upon his arrival. “He is president of the United States. so, in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to meet with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community,” he said.
The presidential visits to the two cities also comes amid escalating calls for the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to vote on legislation passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives that includes background checks for all gun purchasers, including those on the internet or at gun shows.
In his speech Monday addressing the tragedies, Trump cited a variety of reasons for the massacres, including mental illness and violent video games and called for the passage of a so-called “red flag” law that authorizes local authorities to confiscate firearms from a person deemed by a judge as posing a risk of violence.
But he ignored the easy access to guns in the United States, especially high-powered assault weapons like the kind used in both massacres. In a 30-second span in Dayton early Sunday, Connor Betts, a 24-year-old community college student, fired 41 shots that killed nine, including his sister, and wounded another 27 in the mayhem in a nightlife district. In El Paso, a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart store and injured two dozen more.
Trump, in another tweet, noted that Betts’s social media accounts showed that he had left-wing political views, supporting Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Antifa, or anti-fascist, protesters. Betts’s acquaintances say that he had harbored violent thoughts for years and a decade ago has been suspended from high school for putting together a list of boys he wanted to kill and girls he wanted to rape.
The suspected gunman in El Paso, Patrick Crusius, is believed to have posted a white supremacist manifesto online hours before the shooting that expressed his intense hatred towards Hispanics, claiming they were invading Texas.
Trump called on Americans to condemn such rhetoric in his address Monday, but Trump himself is accused of embracing such ideology in speeches vowing to build a wall along the southern border to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and other central American countries — including a speech at a rally this past February in El Paso.
White House spokesman Gidley on Tuesday rejected such criticism of the president. “It’s not the politician’s fault when somebody acts out their evil intention,” Gidley said.