Shortly after he woke up at the White House on Wednesday, President Trump began preparing to travel to two different but similarly broken American cities. He was going there to comfort and visit the grieving communities, victims, and medical staff affected by recent high-profile mass shootings.
But as he sought to comfort victims of gun violence on Wednesday, the president and his team couldn’t help but play the role of victims themselves.
After tuning into Fox News and One America News Network, Trump tweeted about “Radical Left Democrats,” his political nemeses like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the “Fake News” that he’s “up against,” and the specter of “ANTIFA” street fighters. Later in the day, he railed against Democrats for negatively portraying the reception he received at a hospital (though they did no such thing) and—once more—cable news hosts for being less than glowing in their coverage.
It underscored a reality that’s become obvious to anyone who has ever worked for or even casually observed Trump: He’ll find a way to make nearly any national tragedy into an airing of his personal grievances, and neither he nor virtually anything else will change in the process.
The president, his allies, and powerful pro-Trump media outlets have no plans to stop demagoguing migrants or immigration, or to stop using terms like “invasion” to campaign or fundraise. The gun rights lobby and its formidable grassroots seem poised to maintain an iron grip on this presidency and the GOP. And Trump will continue his proven streak of sniping at foes during occasions of national grief.
On his swing through Dayton, Ohio, the president visited the Miami Valley Hospital, where White House aides said he planned to thank hospital and emergency personnel and meet with shooting victims and family members. The event was closed to the press, but Democratic politicians Sen. Sherrod Brown and Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, who met with Trump on Wednesday, told reporters that those at the hospital appeared appreciative and “grateful” for Trump and first lady Melania Trump’s visit. Brown also mentioned that he urged the president not to repeal Obamacare or cut Medicaid (as the Trump administration has gone to court to do), and asked him to work to take “these assault weapons off the streets.” Brown also stated that Trump and his party are “in bed with the gun lobby.”
The pair’s relatively measured responses still provoked ire from the president and his social media director, Dan Scavino, who accompanied Trump on Wednesday’s trip. “Very SAD to see Ohio Senator Brown, & Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley - LYING & completely mischaracterizing what took place w/ the President’s visit to Miami Valley Hospital today” Scavino tweeted, adding: “The President was treated like a Rock Star inside the hospital.”
Trump later told the press that Brown and Whaley had said “to people” that they’d “never seen anything like” the reception he’d had and that they’d been “dishonest” in how they described it after the fact. He then mocked Brown for not getting any support when he entertained a presidential run.
Worrying about TV segments felt oddly detached from the gravity of the moment. But self-interest was—at least in some part—a focus for Team Trump throughout the day. Aboard Air Force One on his way from Dayton to El Paso, Trump again showed that his mind had veered far from the afflicted, dead, or wounded when he took to Twitter once more, this time to roast his perceived enemies.
Once in Texas, the president headed to El Paso’s University Medical Center, where some crowds of protesters had been waiting nearby for him for hours. Upon arrival, Trump’s visit there was also closed to the press.
Those who were surprised at the turn Trump took on Wednesday should not have been. Similar scenes have played out several times before, both on the campaign trail and during his presidency.
Shortly after the Pulse shooting, then-candidate Trump posted to Twitter that the slaughter of 49 people at the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, had proved him prescient about the threat of Muslim terrorists. Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor and now a progressive activist, says he met both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama soon after the shooting. He never met Trump, nor did he wish to, he said, in part because he thought Trump would make it all about Trump.
“First, he never came nor invited us,” Wolf told The Daily Beast this week. “And in truth, I wouldn’t have met with someone who took tragedy in my community as an opportunity to congratulate himself. I suspected at the time that he would sell out to the [National Rifle Association] like all the others around him. Three years later, it turns out I was right.”
Indeed, for as unpredictable as Trump can be during any given moment, his actions following instances of mass gun violence have become fairly routine: a scripted response, a nod toward legislative action, a visit with the survivors—all overshadowed by histrionics and followed by political stalemates.
During Trump’s speech at the White House on Monday morning, he once again stuck to the teleprompter, ostensibly condemning “racist hate” but conspicuously laying off the firearms. He proposed some supposed solutions to the problem, such as involuntarily locking up mentally ill individuals. He also made a point of knocking “gruesome video games,” as he and his White House ham-handedly did after the Parkland slaughter.
But he made no mention of major gun control measures. And on Wednesday, his aides were sending signals to the Hill that he wouldn’t push for anything drastic at all.
Trump’s loyalty to the NRA and gun rights enthusiasts goes back years before his 2015 political rise. Once a gun control-friendly social liberal, Trump’s courting of the gun lobby kicked into high gear starting in the mid-Obama era, when Trump’s predecessor was still struggling to deal with mass shootings in America.
Michael Caputo, a former 2016 Trump campaign adviser, recalled to The Daily Beast on Tuesday that the first conversation he ever had with the then-future president was in 2013, around the time Caputo was trying to recruit Trump to run for governor of New York.
“President Trump and I have talked about guns a lot,” Caputo said. “Gun owners in New York are a potent political block that never moves, and when we were trying to convince Trump to run for governor, we went through all the different demographics in the state he had a chance of winning over.”
During one of these meetings in the Trump Tower conference room, Caputo recounted, “We got to gun owners, and he said, ‘Oh, Second Amendment, I’m very pro-Second Amendment.’ And I asked, ‘Do you carry, do you own, do you hunt?’ He said, ‘No, but my sons do, and we talk about it all the time.’ He said his sons regaled him with stories of hunting and gun rights, and even though he doesn’t carry and he’s not a hunter, it was something he felt he could resonate with… To this day, though, I don’t think the NRA guided his opinion on gun rights. I think [Don Jr. and Eric] did.”
As the two had more and more discussions on the subject of New York-based guns rights activism, Trump asked Caputo: “How does that translate on a national level?” To which his adviser replied: “Well, it’s the NRA or nothing.”
Trump then said “he knew the NRA, and had some experience with them, and was confident he’d get on well with them,” Caputo continued. “We told him about how he could tap into the NRA’s national prominence, and he was interested in the strategy. We talked about mass shootings [in the Obama era] and what that means to the United States, and the importance [to voters] of the Second Amendment—and I know the president has been thinking about this issue for a long time: how you balance gun rights versus gun atrocities.”
On the whole, there hasn’t been much “balance” so far. The NRA put massive financial support behind Trump’s 2016 campaign. And when he came into office, his administration rolled back Obama-era regulation that the gun lobby had fought.
At the White House on Wednesday morning, Trump suggested, once more, that he was willing to take a step away from the NRA when he noted that there was “a very strong appetite for background checks.”
But he’d made such proclamations before. In the wake of the Parkland shooting in 2018, he had promised that he was “going to be very strong on background checks.” A background checks bill was, indeed, passed by the Democratic-controlled House in February. But it died in the Republican-held Senate. And there are no current plans for it to be considered.