In a solemn address from the White House on Monday, President Trump condemned the gunmen who carried out two deadly mass shootings over the weekend and the racism that motivated one of them — but stopped short of calling for stricter gun laws to prevent future attacks.
“These barbaric slaughters are an assault upon our communities, an attack against our nation and a crime against all of humanity,” Trump said. “Hate has no place in America. In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
As the death toll rose to 31 from the twin shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, a divisive president who regularly issues harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric — and who has often re-tweeted statements and images from known white supremacists — struggled to comfort a grieving, inflamed nation.
Reading from a teleprompter, Trump vowed to act “with urgent resolve” to end the uniquely American epidemic of mass shootings, blaming the internet, violent video games and mental health problems as contributing factors.
But Trump pointedly did not endorse rising calls for stricter laws to keep guns out of the hands of likely killers, and did not call for Congress to return from summer recess to consider new reforms.
He instead held the individual shooters responsible, describing one as “wicked” and the other as a “twisted monster.”
“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said.
Hours earlier, Trump had suggested on Twitter that he could support “strong background checks” for gun buyers if Congress should enact them, but he did not repeat that pledge in his comments.
“Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform,” he tweeted.
Lawmakers and White House aides largely dismissed his suggestion that two of the nation’s most politically combustible issues could advance in Congress by being tied together, however.
Trump had endorsed gun law reforms, including expanded background checks, following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., but quickly reversed himself after meeting with the National Rifle Assn.
The co-sponsors of a bill to strengthen background checks, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), both spoke with Trump on Monday about taking up their legislation, which failed to garner the required 60 Senate votes to advance in 2013 months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
“The president showed a willingness to work with us,” they said in a statement.
Two Democratic bills that would expand background checks passed the House in February with scant Republican support, and neither has been taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate.
Trump, for his part, has threatened to veto the bills should they ever get to his desk, calling them a breach of 2nd Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.
The first bill would expand background checks for buyers in all gun sales and most gun transfers, including private transfers. The other would give the federal government additional time to complete a background check on someone trying to buy a gun from a licensed dealer before the sale can be finalized.
Trump, who offered several ideas in his comments aside from tightening the nation’s gun laws, said he would direct the Department of Justice to work more closely with local law enforcement to disrupt potential shooters.
He also called for more so-called red-flag laws, which enable police or family members to petition a state court to temporarily remove firearms from someone who may present a danger to others or themselves.
The president also suggested that those who commit hate crimes and mass murders should receive the death penalty and be executed quickly.
Democrats, including several 2020 candidates, have blamed Trump for inciting violence against immigrants with racist language, which reportedly was echoed by the shooter who killed 20 people in El Paso on Saturday.
Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman who is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, slammed Trump for suggesting that stricter gun laws should be tied to more restrictive immigration policies.
“Only a racist, driven by fear, could witness what took place this weekend — and instead of standing up to hatred, side with a mass murderer’s call to make our country more white,” O’Rourke tweeted. “We are so much better than this president.”
Other Democrats in the crowded 2020 field also criticized Trump’s inaction on the issue.
“Mr. President, immigration isn’t the problem. White nationalism is the problem. America’s inaction on gun safety legislation is the problem,” tweeted former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The president is weak. And wrong. White supremacy is not a mental illness, and guns are a tool that white supremacists use to fulfill their hate,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said in a text message shared on Twitter by his campaign manager.
Former President Obama also issued a lengthy statement , lamenting the frequency of mass shootings in America and calling for changes to the nation’s gun laws.
Without referring to Trump by name, he called on the public to “soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes white supremacy.”
Speaking in the White House Diplomatic Room, Trump sought to deliver a unifying message.
“Together, we lock arms to shoulder the grief,” the president said, stating that cultural change is required for the country to get beyond the hatred that has motivated so many mass shootings.
“Cultural change is hard,” he continued. “But each of us can choose to build a culture that celebrates the dignity and worth of every human life.”
But Trump made no acknowledgment of his own role in sowing division with incendiary rhetoric at rallies or in his tweets.
After neo-Nazis and other right-wing groups clashed with counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, Trump praised what he called “very fine people on both sides,” sparking a storm of criticism at the suggestion of moral equivalence between the two groups.
Last year, he repeatedly railed about a looming “invasion” of immigrants — which the El Paso shooting suspect appeared to parrot in what police say is his online manifesto — and more recently issued racist tweets urging four Democratic members of Congress, all women of color, to “go back” to their ancestral countries.
And while the president said Monday that the public and private sector should collaborate “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” the Trump administration has also taken steps to redirect funding or focus away from countering far-right extremism and anti-government and white supremacist groups.
Trump is expected to visit El Paso and Dayton on Wednesday, although the White House did not announce official plans.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, the Democrat who represents El Paso, said Monday that, in her view, Trump is not welcome in her community.
“Words have consequences,” she said in a TV interview. “The president has made my community and my people the enemy. He has told the country that we are people to be feared, people to be hated.”
Regarding a possible Trump visit this week, she added: “I hope that he has the self-awareness to understand that we are in pain and we are in mourning. “I would ask his staff to consider the fact that his words and his actions have played a role in this.”
In closing his address, Trump mistakenly said “May God bless the memory of those who perished in Toledo,” an Ohio city about 150 miles from Dayton, where the shooting occurred. The line appeared on the White House transcript distributed later, but with a line through the words “in Toledo.”
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.