The shooting attacks at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were hardly the first acts of white-supremacist terror to which Donald Trump and his team scrambled to respond. The first occurred the day right after he officially announced his run for the presidency at Trump Tower.
And in each of those instances, the same pattern took place: Trump momentarily focused on the atrocity at hand before quickly be distracted by other political gripes.
In June 2015, shortly after news broke of the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the future president convened his closest campaign advisers to chart a path forward. Trump agreed that they would need to cancel a South Carolina event scheduled for later that week out of respect for the victims. And he had his staff draft official campaign statements of condemnation and condolence.
To those present at Trump’s side, the Charleston slaughter appeared to weigh heavily on his mind. Sam Nunberg, a former top political adviser to Trump, told The Daily Beast that the visibly upset Republican candidate asked him at least twice: “Women, kids, in a church?” At the time, it was unclear who exactly the victims were and what ages.
And yet, within just a couple short days, Trump was back to being Trump, seemingly eager to once again turn media coverage back on himself and to air his personal grievances.
The day after the shooting, Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton appeared to link Trump’s campaign-launching comments about Mexican rapists and immigration to the kind of rhetoric than can help inspire racist killings. Trump was apoplectic, and posted a video in which he fired back, "Wow, it's pretty pathetic that Hillary Clinton just blamed me for the horrendous attack that took place in South Carolina,” adding, “this is why politicians are just no good. Our country's in trouble.”
Nunberg recalled that when he brought Trump a draft campaign statement pushing back on Clinton, Trump read it over, and specifically ordered Nunberg to throw in a new line about Clinton’s “email server,” as an additional dash of spite.
In that case, it took Trump two days to completely revert back to his standard operating procedures. On Friday, the reversion happened much quicker.
“My warmest sympathy and best wishes goes out to the people of New Zealand after the horrible massacre in the Mosques,” Trump tweeted Friday morning. “49 innocent people have so senselessly died, with so many more seriously injured. The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do. God bless all!”
Twenty-two minutes later, he took to Twitter again to reveal what was really on his mind.
“The ‘Jexodus’ movement encourages Jewish people to leave the Democrat Party,” Trump posted. “Total disrespect! Republicans are waiting with open arms. Remember Jerusalem (U.S. Embassy) and the horrible Iran Nuclear Deal!” He then made clear what channels he was watching, tagging the Twitter handles for the Fox News program Fox & Friends, and also the conservative and similarly pro-Trump One America News Network.
The president wasn’t done. Over the next two hours, Trump posted another four tweets that referenced cable-news segments, with several slamming “the Obama era team of the FBI, DOJ & CIA” for trying to undermine his presidential campaign. The final post in his tweetstorm simply read: “THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN TO A PRESIDENT AGAIN!”
Later in the day, at an event at the White House, during which the president vetoed a resolution to nix his declared national emergency to build his border wall, Trump again conveyed condolences to those murdered at places of Muslim worship by an alleged perpetrator who lashed out at “mass immigration” and “ethnic replacement.”
But he moved on to his preferred topics too. During the same event, Trump railed against the “killers” and “murderers” who were “coming in” because of a “border crisis” that he said was helping to kill Americans in large numbers. He went after “chain migration,” invading “illegal aliens,” and an “incursion” of crime and misery.
When asked by a reporter if white-supremacist terror is a growing lethal threat, Trump said, nonchalantly, “not really.”
The juxtaposition between Trump’s lack of focus and his staff’s attempt to portray his White House as laser-focused is one that has become familiar to the president’s aides over the last two years. While aides rush to portray an administration managing a massive tragedy with a mix of empathy and bureaucratic know-how, the president himself seems (at least publicly) adrift.
On Fox News, senior White House official Mercedes Schlapp assured viewers that Trump would soon reach out to New Zealand’s prime minister. Schlapp said that White House officials have “been in contact” with “our counterparts in” that country, offering support following a “horrific day for the people of New Zealand.”
Schlapp was not asked on air (though she later addressed it with reporters at the White House) about how President Trump is specifically namechecked in the New Zealand mass murderer’s apparent “manifesto.” The online document includes a Q&A section, in which the alleged killer asks himself questions such as, “Were/are you a supporter of Donald Trump?” He answers, “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no.”
The “manifesto,” however, is filled with complex allusions to internet memes and ironic in-jokes, and there is likely plenty of bad-faith trolling proliferating the document.
“It's outrageous to even make that connection between this deranged individual that committed this evil crime, to the president,” Schlapp told reporters on Friday.
Sources close to Trump have consistently said how much he loathes getting blamed for anti-immigrant, racist, or even pro-Trump acts of violence that have occurred in the wake of his political ascendance. But instead of compelling him to bring down the temperature or tamp down the rhetoric, his loathing causes him to dig in further. He has never, according to his advisers and friends, dabbled in self-reflection.
“If anything, it causes him to amp it up,” a former senior White House official said.
At an event at the White House on Friday afternoon, during which the president vetoed a resolution to nix his declared national emergency to build his border wall, Trump again conveyed condolences to those murdered at places of Muslim worship by an alleged perpetrator who lashed out at “mass immigration” and “ethnic replacement.”
—With additional reporting by Will Sommer