The candidates didn’t take the requisite timeout from the presidential campaign trail. They didn’t announce that this week was for healing only. The body count, in fact, was not even final before the massacre in Orlando, Fla., had become as politically charged as it was horrific.
The deadliest mass shooting in American history became the launching point Monday for what was already expected to be one of the country’s nastier presidential campaigns, coming the week that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were set to turn their attention entirely to attacking each other and building their cases in battleground states. Instead, the attack forced them to rewrite planned speeches and confront the anxieties set off by yet another gruesome mass murder – and another perpetrator of Islamic faith.
Trump focused relentlessly on immigration as the root cause of the massacre, saying that “the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.” His unrestrained broadsides on immigrants, Muslim nations, even the motivations of President Obama – at one point Trump seemed to question whether the president had terrorist affiliations – defied, as usual, political convention.
Clinton delivered a nuanced speech with multiple policy proposals, emphasizing the need for the country to unite and avoid scapegoating Muslims. “Our open, diverse society is an asset in the struggle against terrorism, not a liability,” she said, while warning that installing an unsteady hand with xenophobic tendencies in the White House is among the most dangerous things voters could do. She mentioned no names.
The day highlighted approaches, on style and substance, so starkly opposed that at times the candidates seemed to be coming from different planets. It all reflected the nation’s deep divisions on the national security and gun safety concerns likely to dominate the election, as well as the new normal in political discourse.
Trump accused Clinton — her name came up at least 19 times in his address — of mismanagement, political correctness and designing an Obama administration immigration policy culpable for the killings in San Bernardino and now Orlando. He appeared to expand his proposed ban on Muslims entering the country to an even bigger group of people, those from any “areas of the world where there’s a proven history of terrorism” against the U.S. and its allies.
“Why does Hillary Clinton want to bring people here — in vast numbers — who reject our values?” Trump asked, citing no evidence that Clinton wants to do so. He also suggested that Clinton, who enjoys broad support from LGBT groups, is no friend of gays.
“Ask yourself: Who is really the friend of women and the LGBT community?” Trump said. “Donald Trump with actions, or Hillary Clinton with her words? Clinton wants to allow radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country — they enslave women, and they murder gays.”
The aggressiveness of Trump’s remarks at a New Hampshire college were overshadowed only by his comments earlier in the day when he skewered Clinton and Obama on the cable news networks.
The tone of the accusation and the unspecified insinuations harked back to Trump’s time as the most prominent member of the so-called birther movement, those who questioned whether Obama was born in the U.S. He was.
Clinton’s response since Orlando has been measured. Her campaign is confident that swing voters are going to perceive Trump as unhinged and unstable. For her, the shooting was a time to recognize the stakes of taking a gamble on a volatile personality.
In Cleveland, she delivered a speech much like the ones she gave following the shootings last fall in Paris and San Bernardino, in which she soberly laid out a plan for fighting Islamic State and sought to rally voters to embrace, not resist, diversity in these moments. As in the other addresses, she laid out her bona fides for confronting such threats with a multi-plank, deliberate plan focused on engaging U.S. allies, boosting the resources of local law enforcement to combat homegrown terrorism and toughening loose gun laws that allowed shooters to get the assault weapons used in their attacks.
“Whatever we learn about this killer and his motives in the days ahead, we know already the barbarity we face from radical jihadists is profound,” Clinton said. “The attack in Orlando makes it even more clear we can not contain this threat. We must defeat it.”
Clinton warned that the type of Muslim ban Trump has proposed “is wrong. It is also dangerous. It plays right into the terrorists’ hands.” She reflected on the Sept. 11 attacks and how then-President George W. Bush stood firm against Americans inclined to take out their anger against Muslims. “It is time to get back to the spirit of those days,” Clinton said.
The only place Clinton yielded to Trump, ever so slightly, was in the language she used to describe terrorists. She referred in a television interview to “radical Islamism,” a rhetorical shift for her campaign and one the White House is refusing to make amid concerns that the term needlessly complicates U.S. relationships with Islamic allies such as Saudi Arabia and underscores the misguided idea pushed by Islamic State and other extremists that the West is fighting a war against all of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
Trump took credit for the Clinton shift, but then went on to declare his rival “still has no clue what radical Islam is, and won’t speak honestly about what it is.”
Trump and Clinton talked extensively about failures in U.S. gun law enabling the Orlando killer, underscoring how once again 2nd Amendment concerns will play big in the election. Their comments reflected how little common ground Americans have been able to find on the issue, even as gun violence escalates and the weapons used in large-scale attacks are often legally obtained.
“If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked,” Clinton said. “You shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade criminal background checks by buying online or at a gun show.”
Trump, by contrast, boasted of his support from the National Rifle Assn. He has suggested the attack could have been averted – or minimized – if there had been guns available in the Orlando nightclub to defend its patrons. Clinton, he said, “wants to take away Americans’ guns, then admit the very people who want to slaughter us.”
The candidates did attempt to take some semblance of a break from politics in deference to the victims of Orlando and their families. Clinton postponed fundraisers Monday and a major campaign rally with Obama in Wisconsin on Wednesday, their first scheduled rally together since he endorsed her. It was moved to next week. Trump canceled his Monday evening campaign rally.
But Clinton’s declaration at the top of her address Monday that “today is not a day for politics” hardly held true. There was no avoiding them.
Bierman reported from Manchester, N.H., and Halper from Cleveland.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from both candidates’ speeches.
11:46 a.m.: This article was updated with details from Clinton’s speech.
This article was originally published at 7:04 a.m.