Donald Trump’s efforts to provide comfort and support to the victims of two mass shootings has been engulfed by controversy as protesters claimed his rhetoric was responsible for spreading bigotry. There was also unease at the president’s angry tweets posted while flying between Dayton and El Paso on Air Force One.
Five days after a gunman entered a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, and opened fire killing 22 people, only for the violence to be echoed within hours by the killing of nine people in Dayton, Ohio, Mr Trump visited both cities on Wednesday in what for US presidents has long been the role of consoler-in-chief.
In El Paso, with many angry about racist language they believe has emboldened people such as the young white man who allegedly drove 10 hours to deliberately target a store with a large number of Hispanics, critics held a protest to denounce his action. Protesters booed Mr Trump as he and the first lady were driven to meet survivors and first responders at a hospital, outnumbering the president’s supporters who cheered his motorcade.
On a street corner in the city centre, as close to the El Paso Children’s hospital as protesters were allowed, a woman called Margie Ugarte, 41, a paralegal, held up a sign that read “Make racism wrong again”, a riff on Mr Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
“The president should stay away,” she said. “It’s not just that he’s anti-immigrant, he’s anti anyone who is not the same.”
When his motorcade made its way to the Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, to meet survivors, around 100 people were gathered blocks away in a grassy field where they held signs reading “Dump Trump” and “Do Something!”. Pro-Trump flags were also seen in the city, boosting the embattled president.
In El Paso, where more than two dozen people were also injured, allegedly by a man who had posted an anti-immigrant screed online minutes before the attack, a protest featured calls for tolerance and acceptance in advance of the arrival of a president known for his rhetorical assaults on minorities in the country.
Gracie Lawrence, a woman in her seventies, was at a protest in El Paso’s Washington Park, where people said it was a slap in the face that Mr Trump had visited their city. “His words make a difference,” she said. “[Some people now think] it’s ok to racist because Trump has been promoting the same rhetoric.”
Shawn Nixon, 20, was present in the Walmart on Saturday morning as the gunfire started. He and a woman fell to ground to take cover, and he then grabbed a youngster crying for its mother.
At some point he saw a body lying motionless to his left. “Then I closed my eyes and from that point, things went rather hazy. The next thing I knew was when someone grabbed me and took me outside,” he said.
He said he was having trouble sleeping and eating and was seeing a counsellor, and yet was determined to attend the protest to make a stand.
“I’ve come to support my community, but also to ask the president to take back his comments about immigrants,” he said.
Mr Trump was also criticised by a number of the people seeking to challenge him in 2020.
“This president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation. His low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week, I don’t believe fooled anyone,” Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic front-runner, said during a speech in Iowa.
Mr Trump, who did not speak in Ohio, opting instead to flash the press corps a thumbs up, responded on Twitter from Air Force One en-route to El Paso: “Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring!”
The president’s dual visits come just days after the two mass shootings, which have once again revealed deep divisions and racial animus in a country where firearms are freely available.
In the days that have followed, Mr Trump has been attacked for his tendency to scapegoat immigrants and minorities during his rallies and during official remarks while defending white supremacists and nationalists.
And, as the nation has once again grappled with a gun violence epidemic seen nowhere else in the industrialised world, he and other Republicans have found themselves under fire for refusing to bring forward gun reform laws in the Senate that could ban the sale of semi-automatic military-style rifles, ensure universal background checks for firearms, and lead to other protections.
Mr Trump did not visit the actual site of either shooting.
On a road overlooking the Walmart in El Paso, demonstrators held banners condemning white supremacism and calling on politicians to “call it was it is”.
Nicole Gonzalez and her 16-year-old daughter struggled to hold back their tears. Ms Gonzalez said they knew nobody who had been killed but that some of their family and friends had been in the store.
Ms Gonzalez said she was a Republican but that she was married to a Hispanic man and did not like the way Mr Trump had “made everything about immigration”.
“We have never had anything like in our city,” she said. “Now I don’t feel any peace.”
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