President Donald Trump remained largely out of public view as he visited Dayton, Ohio, his first of two scheduled stops Wednesday, Aug. 7, intended to console cities recovering from a pair of mass shootings over the weekend.
Aside from brief appearances on the airport tarmac as he arrived and departed, Trump did not speak publicly or allow himself to be photographed. Reporters traveling with him were secluded as he took part in what aides described as a series of meetings at Miami Valley Hospital with first responders, hospital staff and survivors of a shooting early Sunday morning that left nine dead.
The visit to Dayton was a marked break with tradition, as presidents visiting grieving communities typically offer public condolences and use the opportunity to try to comfort the nation.
In a pair of tweets, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham relayed that Trump and his wife experienced "very powerful moments" during their meetings and that Trump told one survivor, "You had God watching."
Trump was greeted by scores of protesters in downtown Dayton and was expected to encounter more upon arriving Wednesday afternoon in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people died Saturday in a massacre that appeared to target immigrants.
Speaking to reporters before he left Washington, Trump dismissed critics who have suggested that his rhetoric on race and immigration is partly to blame for a rise in hate-inspired violence, such as that in El Paso.
"I think my rhetoric brings people together," Trump said, adding that he is "concerned about the rise of any group of hate."
"I don't like it," he said, "whether it's white supremacy, whether it's any other kind of supremacy."
He called his critics "people who are looking for political gain."
Trump also said that he is open to calling on Congress to return from recess to strengthen background checks for gun buyers but that he sees "no political appetite" for banning assault rifles.
His comments came as he left the White House on a day-long trip that risked stoking divisions rather than bringing the country together after the pair of mass shootings.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he's "looking to do background checks," adding "I don't want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people." (The Washington Post)
Trump's comments about possible legislative responses to the weekend carnage continued a pattern in recent days of advocating unfocused ideas without specifics - a pattern that would face an uncertain path in Congress.
In tweets Monday, Trump called for "strong background checks," but did not mention the idea in formal remarks delivered from the White House three hours later. On Wednesday, he said he supports "background checks like we've never had before."
Trump made a similar call to strengthen background checks after a mass shooting last year at a Florida school, but he threatened earlier this year to veto bills passed by House Democrats seeking to do so.
Many Democrats, including much of the presidential field, advocate reinstating the now-expired assault weapons ban that was included in the 1994 crime bill.
"There is no political appetite for that at this moment," said Trump, who has also voiced support in recent days for "red-flag" laws, which allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from a person deemed by a judge as posing a risk of violence.
Recent polls indicate a majority of Americans support some form of ban on assault rifles, though there is a large partisan divide, and fewer than half of Republicans support such measures. A July NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found 57 percent of the public supported a ban on "the sale of semiautomatic assault guns, such as the AK-47 or the AR-15." Fewer than 3 in 10 Republicans supported the proposal, rising to a slight majority of independents and over 8 in 10 Democrats.
Speaking to reporters after Trump's visit to Dayton, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the president was comforting in his talks with patients in the hospital. But both Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, said they used their time with Trump to lobby him to push for an assault-weapons ban and stronger background checks, among other measures.
In the wake of two mass shootings, President Donald Trump denied on Wednesday that he uses divisive rhetoric, and he said "Our country is doing very well." (The Washington Post)
Speaking to reporters alongside Whaley, Brown said it has been impossible to pass such legislation because of the opposition of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"We can't get anything done in the Senate because Mitch McConnell and the president of the United States are in bed with the gun lobby," Brown said.
Whaley said that during a brief talk with Trump on the airport tarmac, she told him: "Mr. President, the city of Dayton and the people of Dayton are really looking forward to some action" on gun control.
"I think he heard me. I don't know if he will take action," Whaley added.
Scores of sign-wielding protesters - and some Trump supporters - gathered in downtown Dayton, anticipating Trump's arrival. Protesters changed routes when they heard that the president would be greeting survivors at the Miami Valley hospital, and they stood along a sidewalk hoping to catch Trump's attention.
A caravan of emergency vehicles separated the line of demonstrators from the back entrance where the president's motorcade pulled in.
Stephanie Smith, 67, brought a small printout with a cartoonish image of Trump with the words "Stop Gun violence." The retiree was awakened early Sunday by calls from relatives worried she would have been in Dayton's Oregon District when the shooting began.
She then awakened her adult son with the same inquiries.
"It's horrifying," the retiree said. "I appreciate the work being done on red-flag legislation but I am concerned that not enough attention is being placed on the weapons themselves."
Along the protest line, demonstrators said they have lost faith in their politicians to "do something" - as they chanted - to stop the kind of carnage that devastated their city.
"Thoughts and prayers don't stop bullets," one of several signs read.
Three high school friends used banner paper to hold a sign welcoming Trump to Toledo, referencing a mistake he made earlier in the week during remarks in the Oval Office.
Before leaving the White House on Wednesday, Trump directed his ire at several political foes.
In a tweet sent just before midnight, Trump lashed out at former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate and native son of El Paso, a city of about 683,000 with a largely Latino population.
Trump repeated a discredited claim that O'Rourke had changed his first name to appeal to Hispanic voters, mocked his low standing in presidential polling, and told him to "respect the victims & law enforcement - & be quiet!"
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!
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
O'Rourke responded on Twitter, writing: "22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I."
The shooter in El Paso allegedly posted an essay online with language that closely mirrors Trump's rhetoric, as well as the language of the white nationalist movement, including a warning about the "Hispanic invasion of Texas."
Trump and his aides have denied any connection between his rhetoric - he frequently refers to illegal immigration as "an invasion" - and the shootings.
In another tweet Wednesday, Trump pointed to a report from a conservative outlet about the Dayton shooter having supported liberal political figures.
"I hope other news outlets will report this as opposed to Fake News. Thank you!" he wrote.
Police have not drawn any link between the Dayton gunman's political ideology and the shootings, and his motive remains unclear.
In Trump's later remarks to reporters, he brought up the Dayton shooter again, calling him "a fan" of Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, two Democratic presidential candidates.
"I don't blame Elizabeth Warren, and I don't blame Bernie Sanders in the case of Ohio," Trump said. "These are sick people, these are really people who are mentally ill, who are disturbed. It's a mental problem."
Trump also highlighted a controversy about a change in a New York Times headline on a story Monday about his remarks on the shootings. The paper's original headline was "Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism." It was changed in later editions to "Assailing Hate But Not Guns."
In a tweet, Trump alleged that the change came "after the Radical Left Democrats went absolutely CRAZY!"
"Fake News - That's what we're up against," he added.
“Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,” was the correct description in the first headline by the Failing New York Times, but it was quickly changed to, “Assailing Hate But Not Guns,” after the Radical Left Democrats went absolutely CRAZY! Fake News - That’s what we’re up against...
“Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism,” was the correct description in the first headline by the Failing New York Times, but it was quickly changed to, “Assailing Hate But Not Guns,” after the Radical Left Democrats went absolutely CRAZY! Fake News - That’s what we’re up against...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
The Times has said the change was not prompted by criticism from Democratic political candidates.
O'Rourke and several current Democratic officials have urged Trump not to visit El Paso in the aftermath of Saturday's anti-immigrant attack at a Walmart Supercenter.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, whose district includes the El Paso Walmart and shopping center where the massacre occurred, said Tuesday that she had turned down an invitation from the White House to join Trump during his trip.
"I declined the invitation to accompany the President because I refuse to be an accessory to his visit," she wrote in posts on Facebook and Twitter. "I refuse to join without a true dialogue about the pain his racist and hateful words and actions have caused our community and this country."
On Tuesday, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, encouraged people unhappy about Trump's visit to the city of about 140,000 to protest.
"I think people should stand up and say they're not happy if they're not happy he's coming," she told reporters.
Whaley said she isn't sure whether Trump's visit will be helpful.
"Look, I have no sense of what's in President Trump's mind at all, right?" she said. "I can only hope that as president of the United States, he's coming here because he wants to add value to our community, and he recognizes that that's what our community needs."
This article was written by John Wagner, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Arelis Hernandez in Dayton contributed to this report. The Washington Post's Allyson Chiu, Scott Clement, Tim Elfrink, Justin Wm. Moyer and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.