Being the consoler-in-chief requires empathy and the trust of the nation.
Thursday morning at the White House, in the wake of a rampage that left 17 people dead at a Florida high school, President Donald Trump offered a deliberate but emotionless reading of a carefully written speech that lacked any of the typical flourishes of words he’s written himself. He went through the motions, talking about being “joined together in the American family” and addressing scared children, telling them there are people “who will do anything at all” to keep them safe.
But Trump didn’t appear to group himself among those people, instead suggesting kids turn to teachers, family, police or faith leaders.
“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference,” Trump said.
He said he planned to meet with governors and attorneys general later in the month to discuss ways to keep schools safe but he didn’t make any effort to suggest what the call to action would be, prompting the Democratic Attorneys General Association to issue a statement saying, “We don’t know what the president’s plans are.”
He didn’t mention the word guns.
The overall effect was dutiful, and unmemorable—with nothing like the searing moment of President Barack Obama wiping his eyes at the White House briefing room lectern as he talked about the murder of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
He talked about grief, but showed no sign of it himself.
Trump said he’d visit the families of victims, and canceled an event scheduled for Friday in Orlando—but is still set to spend the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort, 40 miles north of Parkland, where the shooting took place.
“It’s always important for the president to demonstrate he is emotionally connected to America and its problems, and it is critically important for the president to discuss what is happening and show great concerns for victims and community,” said Andy Card, who was chief of staff to President George W. Bush during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and through many ups and downs in the years after.
Card said he hadn’t seen Trump’s Parkland remarks, but he’d read them, and said they looked good on the page. “We’re all saying we always want him to be careful with his words, and I thought the words that were written were appropriate words and demonstrated sincere concern and angst,” Card said.
But they fell flat on the delivery. Time after time, Trump has effectively demonstrated only one public emotion—rage. Trump rarely seems to get revved up about anything that doesn’t directly involve him.
His genius for going right at guts and grievances is the essence of his political appeal, but the absence of efforts to reach beyond his base has defined his presidency—and contributed to historically low poll numbers for his first year.
“He’s Trump. I don’t think he has a lot of empathy,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Wednesday afternoon and into the evening, as the news of the shooting poured in, advisers pushed Trump to make a statement. As with similar encouragement to condemn former staff secretary and alleged serial wife-beater Rob Porter, Trump resisted.
Instead Trump, who’s defined much of his presidency by doing the opposite of Obama, found himself outdone on the consoler front by his predecessor, who weighed in on Twitter about an hour after Trump finished speaking.
“We are grieving with Parkland,” Obama wrote. “But we are not powerless. Caring for our kids is our first job. And until we can honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep them safe from harm, including long overdue, common-sense gun safety laws that most Americans want, then we have to change.”
The Parkland shooting was one of several since the start of 2018, and one of dozens since Trump’s inauguration.
There are only two other mass shootings that Trump has previously made speeches about.
One was the attack last summer at a Republican baseball practice, during which he declared, “We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” just days before he began again accusing Democrats of destroying the country. The other was the shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, which he called “an act of pure evil.”
Though people who have spent time with Trump in private moments say he’s engaged and eager to help—“He was really caring,” Puerto Rico Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who flew with Trump to the island after Hurricane Maria, told POLITICO’s Off Message podcast—his public appearances have reflected little warmth. His most memorable exchange on the Puerto Rico trip involved tossing paper towel rolls into a crowd of needy people; that came after he made a post-hurricane trip to Texas and chose not to meet any storm survivors.
In the hours after the Las Vegas massacre, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said when pressed on gun regulations: “I think that’s something we can talk about in the coming days and see what that looks like moving forward.”
There’s been no such discussion in the 4½ months since, and there’s been no accounting from Sanders or others in the White House about why not.
A year ago, Trump signed a bill repealing a rule the Obama administration put in place after Sandy Hook that prevented people receiving Social Security benefits for mental disabilities from purchasing guns.
On Thursday, hours before his public remarks, he tweeted that “neighbors and classmates” should have reported the shooter earlier—while his son Donald Trump Jr. stoked the flames of anti-deep state fervor within the Trump base, liking a tweet from Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter that said: “the FBI was too busy trying to undermine the president to bother with doing it’s [sic] freaking job” and track the shooter’s threats online.
Aside from a presidential proclamation lowering flags to half mast, neither he nor anyone else at the White House said anything more about the shooting after his remarks, even after the leader of a white nationalist group in Florida said the shooter had trained with its members, or after CBS News verified an Instagram account belonging to the shooter in which he set a profile picture of himself wearing a red Make America Great Again hat.
Others revisited their familiar scripts. Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a press conference near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Thursday morning that he wants to have “a real conversation” with leaders in Tallahassee about “how do we make sure” parents know they can send their children to school safely, and how to keep guns away from people with mental illness.
The Florida Senate on Thursday afternoon postponed a pre-scheduled committee hearing on a bill to loosen background checks for gun purchases.
Capt. Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the co-founder of Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, said in a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon that watching Trump’s speech, he heard “a lot of words about mourning and grieving and prayers and a lot of other superlatives.”
Kelly added: “I think it really came from the heart that an incident like this would sadden somebody in his position. But I think what was left out was any suggestion of what would be an effective course of action here besides just, say, a visit to Florida.”
Heather Caygle and Nancy Cook contributed to this report.
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