After El Paso, the White House looks to focus on guns over racial rhetoric

Image: A man places an American flag at a makeshift memorial near the site
A man places an American flag at a makeshift memorial near the site of a mass shooting that left 20 dead in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 4, 2019. Copyright Callaghan O'Hare Reuters
Copyright Callaghan O'Hare Reuters
By Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann with NBC News Politics
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First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.


WASHINGTON — After the weekend's killing of 20 people in El Paso by an anti-immigrant shooter who lamented an "invasion" by Latinos, the political debate in the country right now could be the familiar one — about access to guns — or it could be about the radicalization of white supremacists in the Trump era.

The White House clearly wants the conversation to stay on the familiar territory of guns and gun control, by putting forward a new background check proposal.

And it says a lot that the administration is picking that fight — and a potential run-in with the NRA — over confronting the idea that the president played any role in radicalizing the El Paso shooter.

Here's how White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney addressed the shooting on Meet the Press: "These are crazy people, sick people, and until we figure out why we are creating this many people like this in this culture, why we are giving them such wide sort of audiences on social media, why we are making weapons available to them when they probably shouldn't get them. Let's talk about background checks, something we have worked on in this administration. Those are the conversations to have."

Mulvaney wouldn't entertain the idea that the president's rhetoric has any influence on those who engage in violence, saying that he believes the shooter "is doing this even if Hillary Clinton is president. In fact, he'd probably go out and blame Hillary Clinton for doing it."

The presidenttweeted this morning that he wants "strong background checks," an idea that's overwhelmingly popular (more on that below.) But he also suggested "marrying" those reforms to immigration legislation, which almost guarantees a partisan stalemate.

Still, the administration's decision to focus solely on the gun issue shows just how toxic the other narrative — about the president's appeal to white nationalists — is for Trump.

For both the administration and for the Democratic 2020 candidates, this can be a conversation about guns or one about race and radicalism.

Our question: Is making this just about guns the easy way out?

What will Trump say in his remarks today?

The president was mostly silent about the violence — which also included a second mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio — over the weekend. But it's also worth asking what he could have said that would have been helpful or comforting to the nation, given how his own rhetoric has become a part of the debate.

Trump is set to make remarks about the shootings at 10am ET this morning.

Will the president address the El Paso shooter's motivations at all — or his specific targeting of Latinos?

Will he announce a trip to El Paso or to Dayton?

Will he be defensive about the critiques of his own language?

Will he use the phrases "white nationalism" or "white supremacy" ? (which just a handful of Republicans, including Ivanka Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and George P. Bush, have directly invoked.)

Will he announce any new law enforcement initiatives dedicated to tracking and preventing white nationalist ideology from spreading online?

Will he mention the decision by internet services provider Cloudflare to drop online forum 8chan, where the El Paso shooter reportedly posted his anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before the shooting?

How the 2020 candidates addressed the shootings and Trump's rhetoric

Here's how some of the top 2020 candidates talked about white nationalism, white supremacy and Trump in the wake of the weekend's violence:

  • Joe Biden on Twitter: "We can't fix a problem if we refuse to name it: white nationalism. An ideology emboldened by a president who stokes the flames of hatred and coddles white supremacists with messages of support. We must do what Trump won't: condemn this evil and eradicate it from our society."
  • Beto O'Rourke, asked on CNN whether he believes the president is a white nationalist: "Yes, I do. ... He does not even pretend to respect our differences or to understand that we are all created equal. He is saying that some people are inherently defective or dangerous, reminiscent of something that you might hear in the Third Reich, not something that you expect in the United States of Americs."
  • Elizabeth Warren on MSNBC: "The president has embraced white nationalists. He has encouraged white nationalists. He is there with white nationalists, and when white nationalists embrace him, and call him their friend, you know, I take them at their word on that… [H]e certainly has done everything that the white nationalists have wanted him to do."
  • Kamala Harris on MSNBC: "He has emboldened it, he has given it power, he has elevated it. He has coddled it and he's got to stop. We have a president of the United States who has embraced white nationalism."
  • Cory Booker on Meet the Press: "When you have the president, from the highest moral office in our land, talking about invasions and infestations and s***hole countries, the kinds of things that come out of his mouth that so harm the moral fabric of our nation, he is responsible. He's responsible, when he has taken no action whatsoever to even condemn white supremacy, even when his own FBI is talking about this being sourcing major parts of our problem."
  • Bernie Sanders, asked on CNN if he thinks Trump is a white nationalist: "I do. Look. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I think all of the evidence out there suggests that we have a president who is a racist, who is a xenophobe, who appeals and is trying to appeal to white nationalism, and, you know, it breaks my heart to have to say this is the person we have who is president of the United States."

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is ... 89 percent

89 percent.

That's the share of Americans in a recent NPR/NewsHour/Marist poll who said that background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales is a GOOD idea. Just nine percent disagreed.

In the same poll, 57 percent said that it would be a good idea to ban sales of semi-automatic assault guns such as the AR-15. Forty-one percent called that a bad idea.

Those calling a ban on semi-automatic weapons a good idea included 83 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents, but just 29 percent of Republicans.

2020 VISION: Another retirement in Texas

Another day, another announcement of a retirement by a Republican member of Congress. And it's another one from Texas: Rep. Kenny Marchant — which makes him the fourth GOP House member from the Lone Star state to call it quits, per the New York Times. He's also the 11th GOP member of the House who plans to retire or run for a different office in 2020.


Especially in light of the clashes over the weekend's shootings, it's hard to imagine that it's getting any easier for Republican leadership to convince wavering members to stay on board in this political environment.

On the campaign trail today: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar all participate in the UNIDOS conference in San Diego. Cory Booker campaigns in Alabama and South Carolina. Bernie Sanders has a town hall with immigrant workers in California. And Jay Inslee meets with environmental leaders in Reno.

Dispatches from NBC's embeds

Sen. Kamala Harris addressed a group of black sorority and fraternity members in Las Vegas where she was asked about attacks on her record as a prosecutor. NBC's Deepa Shivaram reports Harris' response, "You know, people want to hit me for being a prosecutor but you know what? Let me tell you something. Part of it is, look, I know how to deal with those predators cause I've taken them on before."

Sen. Bernie Sanders also addressed a town hall in Las Vegas where he said he believes that President Trump is using the office of the presidency to enrich himself. NBC's Gary Grumbach reports Sanders' comments, "You would think you got a few things to keep yourself busy rather than worry about making even more money than you already have. But his greed apparently is unquenchable."

The Lid: Texas exits

Don't miss the pod from Friday, when we looked at the impact of Rep. Will Hurd's decision not to run again in 2020.


ICYMI: News clips you shouldn't miss

Here's our team's report on how internet service provider Cloudflare says it's dropping the 8chan forum.

Democrats are pushing Mitch McConnell to bring the Senate back into session for a gun control vote.

Gun control groups are catching up with the NRA, the New York Times writes.

The political and legal confusion continues in Puerto Rico.

Trump agenda: Staying mum

The AP reports on Trump's long silence after the shootings.


In a New York Times op-ed, James Comey urges the president to "take a stand against racism."

The FBI faces skepticism and challenges as it tries to take on domestic terrorism.

2020: Downballot drama

NBC's Alex Seitz-Wald offers a good look at how some of the biggest races on the ballot in 2020 are state legislative contests.

What's next for the progressive climate movement?

The AP looks at how Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign is being reshaped by the El Paso shooting.


POLITICO looks at Pete Buttigieg's army of new fundraisers.

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