WASHINGTON - Protesters greeted President Donald Trump's arrival in Dayton Wednesday, blaming his incendiary 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.
Trump, who often seems most comfortable on rally stages with deeply partisan crowds, has not excelled at projecting empathy in public, often mixing what can sound like perfunctory expressions of grief with awkward offhand remarks. While he has offered hugs to tornado victims and spent time at the bedsides of shooting victims, he has yet to project the kind of emotion and vulnerability of his recent predecessors.
Barack Obama grew visibly shaken as he addressed the nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre and teared up while delivering a 2016 speech on new gun control efforts. George W. Bush helped bring the country together following the Sept. 11 attacks, notably standing atop the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center, his arm draped over the shoulder of a firefighter, as he shouted through a bullhorn.
Trump, too, has been able to summon soothing words. But then he often quickly lapses into divisive tweets and statements -- just recently painting immigrants as "invaders," suggesting four Democratic congresswoman of color should "go back" to their home countries even though they're U.S. citizens and deriding majority-black Baltimore as a rat-infested hell-hole.
In the Texas border city of El Paso, some residents and local Democratic lawmakers said Trump was not welcome and urged him to stay away.
"This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday's tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso," former Rep. Beto O'Rourke tweeted. "We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here."
Trump, on the eve of his El Paso trip, snapped back on Twitter that O'Rourke "should respect the victims & law enforcement - & be quiet!"
In Dayton, Mayor Nan Whaley said she would be meeting with Trump on Wednesday, but she told reporters she was disappointed with his scripted remarks Monday responding to the shootings. His speech included a denunciation of "racism, bigotry and white supremacy" and a declaration that "hate has no place in America." But he didn't mention any new efforts to limit sales of certain guns or the anti-immigration rhetoric found in an online screed posted just before the El Paso attack.
The hateful manifesto's author -- police believe it was the shooter but investigation continues -- insisted the opinions "predate Trump and his campaign for president." But the words echoed some of the views Trump has expressed on immigration, Democrats and the media.
Whaley said simply, "Everyone has it in their power to be a force to bring people together, and everybody has it in their power to be a force to bring people apart -- that's up to the president of the United States."
Democrats vying to challenge Trump in the 2020 election will also have their say.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the 2020 Democratic primary, is slated to speak on white nationalism later Wednesday in Iowa. According to excerpts from his campaign, Biden will declare Trump "lacks the moral authority to lead" because he has "aligned himself with the darkest forces in our nation" and "in both clear language and in code ... has fanned the flames of white supremacy."
O'Rourke will be addressing an (hash)ElPasoStrong rally Wednesday afternoon that will serve as counterprogramming to Trump's visit, in addition to attending a morning remembrance and making an evening visit to a makeshift memorial outside the Walmart where a gunman killed 22 people. And New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker will deliver a speech on gun violence and white nationalism at the Charleston, South Carolina, church where nine black parishioners were killed in 2015.
Associated Press writer John Seewer contributed to this report.
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