By Jeff Mason
EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump met victims and first responders from last weekend’s deadly shootings in Texas and Ohio on Wednesday, as chanting protesters accused him of inflaming tensions with anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric.
Trump visited hospitals where victims were treated in El Paso, Texas, on the border with Mexico, and in Dayton, Ohio, after massacres 13 hours apart that shocked the country and reopened a national debate on gun safety.
In both cities, crowds of protesters gathered to confront Trump and condemn his visit. Some held signs reading “Trump is racist,” “Love over hate” and “Send him back!”
Chanting crowds in Dayton urged Trump: “Do something!”
The president and first lady Melania Trump avoided the press on both hospital visits and stayed out of public view.
They visited survivors in their hospital rooms at the University Medical Center in El Paso and Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, and thanked the medical staff and first responders, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.
“It was a warm and wonderful visit,” Trump said on Twitter after leaving Dayton. “Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love.”
Trump also visited law enforcement personnel at an emergency operations centre in El Paso to thank them for their response on Saturday, when a man killed 22 people at a Walmart store, apparently after posting an anti-immigrant manifesto online.
In Dayton, nine people and the suspect were killed in a rampage early on Sunday.
“The job you have done is incredible,” Trump told gathered officers and staff. “I wanted to come and thank you.”
Before leaving Washington, Trump said that in the wake of the shootings 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 Democratic efforts to ban 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.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both Democrats, accompanied Trump in Dayton and told reporters they urged him 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 said. “A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton.”
Trump later criticized the two Democrats for their comments, saying on Twitter the news conference they held was “a fraud. It bore no resemblance to what took place.”
Trump told reporters at the El Paso operations centre the two Democrats “should not be politicking today.”
Democrats say Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially charged language at rallies and on Twitter has fanned racist, white nationalist sentiments, creating a political climate that is conducive to hate-based violence.
The massacre in the predominantly Hispanic city of El Paso is being investigated as a hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, authorities said. The FBI said the Dayton shooter also 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.
“He’s going to make war between us. Racism is starting to pop up more and more. Mexican people are fed up. He’s going to create chaos around here,” said Fernando Montoya, 45, who joined the protesters at a park in El Paso.
On Monday, Trump gave a speech focusing on mental health reforms, tighter internet regulation and wider use of the death penalty. Democrats accused Trump of hiding behind talk of mental illness and the influence of social media rather than committing to laws to restrict gun ownership.
In Iowa, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden said Trump had “fanned the flames” of white supremacy.
“We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism, and division,” the former vice president said.
Former Texas congressman and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, another 2020 presidential contender, said Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and thus “has no place here.”
Asked on MSNBC on Wednesday if Trump is a white supremacist, O’Rourke said: “He is. He’s also made that very clear.”
U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes El Paso, declined a White House invitation to join Trump in the city and said that the president “is not welcome here.”
“Members of our community, Hispanics and Mexicans and immigrants, have been dehumanized. That’s the bottom line: we’ve been dehumanized by the president and by his words,” she told the protest rally in El Paso.
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, Daniel Trotta in El Paso; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Howard Goller, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)