Leaving the White House for a trip to Dayton and El Paso Wednesday, President Donald Trump couldn’t resist a detour to politics, lambasting critics of his response to two mass shootings as “political people” who are “very low in the polls.”
The Democrats seeking to replace him sought to draw a sharp contrast to that kind of moment as the nation still reeled from the latest violence, revealing differences in their own approaches as they struck back at the president.
Around the same time that Trump was speaking, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker stood in the pulpit of a church that was the site of a mass shooting four years ago and argued that simply acknowledging white supremacy is insufficient. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who was born in El Paso, joined a protest against the president’s visit. And former Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech blaming Trump’s rhetoric, which he claimed has “unleash[ed] the deepest darkest forces in our nation.”
It was a stunning day of politics in the 2020 campaign, as Democrats sought to show that they could help heal the nation in a time of tragedy, a role that has always been unnatural for Trump, and bridge deep racial divisions that have surfaced.
Booker began his day at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., the site of a hate-driven massacre in 2015 that left nine dead at the hands of a white supremacist with deep misunderstand of slavery and race. In a stand-out speech of the campaign thus far, Booker laid responsibility for the deaths at the feet of those like Trump who fueled fear of an “invasion” and those who likened minorities as “rats and rodents” during his visit to the oldest black church in the South, known as Mother Emanuel and an icon to many African-Americans.
“The act of anti-Latino, anti-immigrant hatred we witnessed this weekend did not start with the hand that pulled the trigger. It did not begin when a single white supremacist got into his car to travel 10 hours to kill as many human beings as he could,” Booker said, broadening his assessment of hate. “It was planted in fertile soil, because the contradictions that have shadowed this country since its founding remain a part of our body politic.”
Bleak and uplifting in equal measure, Booker used the stop to reframe the campaign against Trump in a way almost guaranteed to leave the incumbent President on shaky ground.
The President, for his part, denied any culpability. “I think my rhetoric brings people together,” Trump insisted Wednesday morning before he left for Ohio.
But the nation’s divisions were laid bare when Trump arrived in Dayton for his first stop of the day, as protesters lined the streets downtown holding pro-Trump flags in some hands and “Dump Trump” and “Flip the Senate” signs in others. As he spent about an hour inside Miami Valley Hospital, where, according to the White House, he thanked first responders and hospital staff and met with the victims and families being treated there, he faced growing criticism over his own divisive rhetoric.
“We have a President who has aligned himself with the darkest forces in this nation,” Biden said during a stop in Burlington, Iowa, that took place while Trump was on Air Force One flying from Ohio to Texas. “And that makes winning the battle for the soul of this nation that much harder.” It was arguably the best showing yet this campaign from the former Vice President who, at times, has appeared unsteady in the front-runner role.
Comforting the nation in times of crisis has never been Trump’s strong suit. He thrives on rally-style environments and provocation, not on solemn or emotional calls to unity. “He hasn’t really been a consoler,” Michael Cornfield, a professor at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, told TIME about the way Trump talks about national tragedies. “This kind of language, which we do associate with the presidency — it’s one of their undefined but socially expected roles — would be new to him.”
After Trump denounced white supremacy in a speech at the White House Tuesday, he largely stayed out of the public view in Dayton on Wednesday. The only insights came from White House aides’ Twitter feeds and comments to reporters aboard Air Force One afterwards. Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted her account of the President’s conversations in the hospital. “You had God watching,” Trump told victims and families, according to Grisham’s tweet. “I want you to know we’re with you all the way.” Social media aide Dan Scavino tweeted Trump “was treated like a Rock Star inside the hospital,” and posted pictures of Trump smiling, taking selfies and giving thumbs up to the people there.
Speaking briefly to reporters after the visit, Trump said he had an “amazing day.” “The love, the respect for the office of he presidency — I wish you could have been in there to see it,” he said. Trump left for Texas after the hospital visit, and his limousine rolled past hundreds of protesters near the hospital entrance, some bearing Trump campaign gear while at least one person held a sign that said “Impeach.”
El Paso was always going to be a more fraught stop for the President. The Dayton shooter’s motive is still unknown. But the suspected shooter who killed 22 people and injured at least 26 others after opening fire in a Walmart in El Paso may have posted a screed online before his killing spree, which referred to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
The author, whose identity authorities are trying to determine and who may be the shooting suspect, explicitly clarified that he has held his views since before Trump’s political rise, but critics have been drawing parallels between the language used in the posting and words Trump has used in the past, like “invasion” to describe undocumented immigrants coming to the United States.
“How far apart are those comments?” Biden asked in his fiery speech in Iowa. “I don’t think it’s that far at all. In both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation.” (Trump declared Biden’s speech “Sooo Boring!” in a tweet from aboard Air Force One while the former Vice President was still on stage.)
No 2020 Democratic candidate has a more personal podium from which to criticize Trump right now than O’Rourke, who cancelled campaign travel in the wake of the shooting in his hometown and spent Wednesday and the days leading up to it meeting with community members there. On Tuesday night, the president tweeted about O’Rourke, mocking him and his polling and telling him to “be quiet!” On Wednesday morning, O’Rourke attended a morning of remembrance at El Dorado High School, where he addressed students from a football field.
“I want to stand with this community, not so much against anybody else. [It’s] a great moment to remind ourselves just who we are, this beautiful, diverse community of people who’ve come from all over the planet,” O’Rourke told reporters after the assembly.
From there he went to an El Paso Strong rally, a community event put on by local organizations “to honor those lives lost, confront President Trump and white supremacy, and demand responsible gun control.”
There, people spent the hottest part of the day out in the sun, where they held signs that said “your words have consequences” and “f-ck racism” and “there’s blood on your little hands.”
Perhaps the sign that most universally captured the mood at Washington Park, where the rally took place mere miles from the border, was the giant banner held by several people in front of the stage that read, “not welcome.” At one point, the crowd even broke out into chants of “send him back.”
“We have a president who demonizes communities like this one, who vilifies immigrants, who says that those from Mexico are rapists and criminals and warns of invasions and infestations,” O’Rourke said.
Punctuating O’Rourke’s speech were people chanting “no more complacency, stop white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, Trump visited first responders, staff, victims and families at the University Medical Center of El Paso.
Elsewhere in the city, a crowd chanted “present” in Spanish after each of the 22 victims’ names from the Walmart shooting here in El Paso were called one by one.