U.S. President Donald Trump met in Ohio on Wednesday with victims and first responders from one of last weekend’s two deadly mass shootings, while protesters chanting “Do Something!” and “You are why” accused him of inflaming tensions with anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric.
Trump visited Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where the wounded were treated after nine people and the suspect were killed in a rampage early on Sunday, one of two mass shootings 13 hours apart that shocked the country.
Crowds of protesters outside the hospital and in downtown Dayton held signs reading, “Hate not welcome here,” and “Stop this terror.”
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said on Twitter that Trump stopped by hospital rooms and met with patients while thanking the medical staff for their work.
“You had God watching. I want you to know we’re with you all the way,” she quoted Trump as saying at the hospital.
Later in the day, Trump will visit the Texas city of El Paso, on the border with Mexico, where 22 people were killed at a Walmart store on Saturday by a 21-year-old man who had posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online.
The back-to-back massacres have reopened the national debate over gun safety.
As he left the White House, Trump said he wanted to strengthen background checks for gun purchases and make sure mentally ill people did not carry guns. He predicted congressional support for those two measures but not for banning assault rifles.
“I can tell you that there is no political appetite for that at this moment,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But I will certainly bring that up … There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks.”
In Dayton, Trump was greeted at the airport by a bipartisan group of state and local officials, including Democratic Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.
They told reporters afterward that they urged Trump to call on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to bring the Senate back from its summer recess to work on a House-passed bill that expands background checks on gun buyers.
Brown said he asked Trump to promise he would sign that bill. “He only said that we will get things done,” Brown said, adding the president had been “comforting” to the victims.
Whaley said she agreed with Trump’s decision not to visit the district where the shooting occurred given the high emotions in the community.
“A lot of people that own businesses in that district are not interested in the president being there,” she told reporters. “A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton.”
Democrats say Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially charged language at rallies and on Twitter has done much to fan racist, white nationalist sentiments, creating a political climate more conducive to hate-based violence.
The El Paso massacre is being investigated as a hate crime and the FBI said the Dayton shooter had explored violent ideologies.
An open letter to Trump on Wednesday in the El Paso Times described the border city as having “a deep tradition of racial harmony” whose people came together after the tragedy. It admonished Trump for calling El Paso one of the country’s most dangerous cities in his February State of the Union address.
Authorities have said they are investigating Saturday’s shooting spree in the predominantly Hispanic city as a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism. They cited a racist manifesto posted online shortly before the shooting, which they attributed to the suspect.
On Monday, Trump gave a speech focusing on mental health reforms, tighter internet regulation and wider use of the death penalty. Democrats accuse Trump of hiding behind talk of mental illness and the influence of social media rather than committing to laws they insist are needed to restrict gun ownership and the types of weapons that are legal.
In Iowa, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden planned to say in a campaign speech, “We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism, and division.”
In a sign of higher tensions after the shootings, a motorcycle backfiring on Tuesday night in New York’s Times Square sent crowds running for fear of another gun attack.
Trump, in his televised White House speech on Monday, condemned “sinister ideologies” and hate. His supporters say Democrats unfairly blame him for the behavior of criminals.
U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes El Paso, declared that Trump “is not welcome here.”
She said on Twitter on Tuesday she declined a White House invitation to join Trump in El Paso after being told he was too busy to speak with her by phone in advance. “I refuse to be an accessory to his visit,” Escobar later told CNN.
Former Texas congressman and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, said Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and thus “has no place here.”
In an apparent answer to his criticism, Trump said on Twitter late on Tuesday O’Rourke “should respect the victims & law enforcement – & be quiet!”
Not everyone agreed that Trump should stay away.
“This is not a political visit,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo told reporters. “He is president of the United States. So in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to meet with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community.”
(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Rich McKay, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Alistair Bell)