No One Knows Trump’s Next Move

Part of a president’s job is to be a unifying figure in times of national crisis. This president could be past the point where he can take on that role.

Mandel Ngan / Stephen Jaffe / AFP / Getty / Gerald Herbert / AP / The Atlantic

Updated on August 4, 2019 at 4:26 p.m. ET

It was a part of the presidency that would come to surprise Bill Clinton, if only because of its heartrending frequency. Soon after the gun massacre at Columbine High School in the spring of 1999, Clinton flew to Littleton, Colorado, to talk with students, teachers, and parents mourning the deaths of the 13 victims. So much of his job, he told the audience, centered on a task that had nothing to do with his constitutional duties: comforting survivors of mass shootings. “More than we ever could have imagined,” he said, his role was “to be with grieving people.”

That’s not something that comes naturally to President Donald Trump. Consoling a nation calls for empathy and eloquence; Trump hasn’t shown much capacity for either. Presidents often use scripture as a balm when people are hurting; Trump seems little moved by religious faith or feeling. Part of a president’s job is to be a unifying figure in times of national crisis. After 30 divisive months in office, Trump could be past the point where he can take on that role. The question now is whether his countrymen even expect him to.

So far, Trump’s response to this weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, has been uneven. He’s sent out the obligatory condolences and offers of federal assistance via Twitter. But he has also taken time to tweet favorably about two of his political supporters. A full day has passed since the El Paso shooting without Trump making a live statement on camera, though he made a cameo at a private wedding at his golf club in New Jersey, where he spent the weekend.

As mass shootings have become commonplace in this country, Americans have grown used to seeing their presidents try to play a healing role. It’s a norm that Trump’s predecessors helped cultivate. Former President Barack Obama built his legacy partly on his memorable response to gun violence. The day of the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in December 2012, he teared up while addressing the press about the massacre of schoolchildren. Three years later, he led mourners in singing “Amazing Grace” while giving a eulogy for the pastor killed at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In Littleton that day in 1999, Clinton delivered a speech designed to soothe the community, closing with a story about Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who became South Africa’s first black president after serving nearly three decades in prison. Mandela was filled with anger over his confinement, but resolved never to surrender to his jailers his “mind and his heart.” Looking out at students who had heard the gunshots at Columbine and seen their classmates fall, Clinton said: “I see here today that you have decided not to give your mind and your heart away. I ask you now to share it with all your fellow Americans.”

Republican President George W. Bush gave a short and powerful speech at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, after the 2007 mass shooting on campus that left 32 people dead. One day after the violence, Bush traveled to the school to speak at a memorial service held in the basketball arena. “People who have never met you are praying for you. They’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured,” Bush said. “There’s a power in these prayers—real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the scriptures tell us, ‘Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’”

Gun violence is so routine in the United States that becoming numb to reports of the latest tragedy is easy. But in their senseless lethality, there was something especially harrowing about this weekend’s shootings. One mass shooting piled atop another in the space of half a day, reinforcing the creeping sense that no public space is safe. Twenty people died at a Walmart in El Paso, and another nine were murdered outside a bar in a popular neighborhood in Dayton. More than four dozen were injured between the two episodes.

In any other administration, it would fall to the president to reassure a jittery nation. But does the country, at this moment, think Trump has that in him? Does enough of the nation see in him a truly national leader who can bind up fresh wounds? Polling has repeatedly shown that he is the most polarizing president in the modern era. A Gallup survey evaluating Trump’s second year in office found that the gap between Democrats’ and Republicans’ approval of him was a whopping 79 points—the largest ever recorded. His approval rating in 2018, at about 40 percent, was the lowest for any second-year president since World War II, Gallup reported. In a sign of how people view Trump as a moral figure, a Quinnipiac University poll from March showed that by a margin of 72 percent to 21 percent, voters said Trump was not a good role model for children.

Public opinion of the president seems to track with his own conception of his job: He doesn’t carry himself as someone who necessarily wants to preside over all Americans; invariably, his focus is his core voters.

“What you want in a moment like this is somebody to be able to rise above partisanship, rise above the political concerns and be able to be the president of all the people," Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential biographer, told me. “And that has been, so far, not the way the president has handled the presidency. He's spent time solidifying his base. You keep hoping for those moments when he'll reach beyond that base and expand it so the country can feel that he's their president, too. This is one of those moments when there’s a great desire for that.”

And his compassion is conditional. When parts of California, a deep-blue state, were scorched by wildfires last year, Trump threatened to cut off federal aid, saying without evidence that the state had mismanaged funds. Just days ago, he seemed to gloat upon hearing the news about an attempted break-in at the home of Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings.

Anything Trump says about the shooting in El Paso in particular risks reigniting a debate about whether his own rhetoric fuels such acts of violence. Authorities are investigating an online manifesto allegedly posted by the white male suspect, part of which refers to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Trump has used similar language: In a tweet from January, he said that troops sent to the border with Mexico would be stopping “the attempted invasion of illegals.” He’s referred to an “invasion” in multiple public remarks since then, too. But he’d paid little heed to the sort of homegrown domestic terrorism that’s given rise to mass killings.

In the hours after the shootings, Trump stuck to Twitter, sending out a series of brief messages voicing condolences. “God bless the people of El Paso, Texas. God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio,” he said this morning, following a tweet about how the FBI is working with state and local law enforcement. Yesterday, though, there was an oddly discordant message that Trump, for some reason, believed couldn’t wait. Minutes after writing that there were “many killed” in El Paso, he tweeted about an Ultimate Fighting Championship match that would take place that night involving one of his supporters, Colby Covington. “Fight hard tonight, Colby. You are a real Champ!” Trump wrote, as El Paso treated the wounded and recovered the dead.

Covington won the match.