DAYTON, Ohio (AP) – Protesters greeted President Donald Trump’s arrival in Dayton Wednesday, blaming his rhetoric for inflaming political and racial tensions in the country, as he visited survivors of last weekend’s mass shootings and saluted first responders.
The president and first lady Melania Trump began their visit at the hospital where many of the victims of Sunday’s attack were treated. The White House Trump would be thanking first responders and hospital staff, as well as meeting with victims and their families.
Outside Miami Valley Hospital, at least 200 protesters gathered, hoping to send a message to the president that they want action on gun control. Some said he was not welcome in their city.
It was a highly usual display of anger and hostility at a time of national tragedy, driven by critics who say Trump’s own words may have contributed to last weekend’s shootings in Ohio and El Paso, Texas.
It was an assertion Trump rejected as he left the White House, strongly criticizing those who say he bears some responsibility for the nation’s divisions.
“My critics are political people,” Trump said, noting the apparent political leanings of the shooter in the Dayton killings and suggesting the man was supportive of Democrats.
“Had nothing to do with President Trump,” Trump said. “So these are people that are looking for political gain.”
He also denied his rhetoric had anything to do with the violence, claiming instead that he “brings people together. Our country is doing incredibly well.”
It is a highly unusual predicament for an American president to at once try to unite a community and a nation at the same time he is being criticized as contributing to a combustible climate that can spawn violence.
Some 85% of U.S. adults believe the tone and nature of political debate has become more negative, with a majority saying Trump has changed things for the worse, according to recent Pew Research Center polling.
And more than three quarters, 78%, say that elected officials who use heated or aggressive language to talk about certain people or groups make violence against those people more likely.
Trump traveled to Ohio, before heading to Texas. White House officials have said the visits would be similar to those he’s paid to grieving communities in the past, with the Republican president and the first lady saluting first responders and spending time with mourning families and survivors.
“We’ll be meeting with first responders, law enforcement and some of the victims and paying my respects and regards,” Trump said Wednesday morning. “It’s a terrific opportunity, really, to congratulate some of the police and law enforcement. The job they’ve done was incredible. Really incredible”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Tuesday that Trump also wants “to have a conversation” about ways to head off future deadly episodes.
“We can do something impactful to prevent this from ever happening again, if we come together,” the spokesman said.
That’s a tough assignment for a president who thrives on division and whose aides say he views stoking discord and unease about cultural, economic and demographic changes as key to his reelection.
Trump insisted that Congress was making progress on possible new gun legislation. He said he has had “plenty of talks” with lawmakers in recent days and that there is “a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks.”
But passage of a pending background check bill in the Senate remains unlikely Support for a bipartisan measure reached a high-point with a 2013 vote after the Sandy Hook shooting but it fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance.
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