Under President Obama, the White House response to mass shootings developed a ritualistic quality, with the president delivering 15 speeches offering prayers for the fallen and calls for lawmakers to tighten gun-safety laws, which were mostly not heeded.
President Trump has changed the pattern — and not just because he opposes stricter gun-control measures. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in particular, we’ve seen victims addressing Trump directly, with several students who survived the shooting using Twitter to demand that he take action. On Thursday Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in Wednesday’s shooting, issued her own plea to the president, looking into the camera to address him during a CNN interview.
“President Trump, you say what can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands,” Alhadeff yelled. “What can you do? You can do a lot! This is not fair to our families and our children [to] go to school and have to get killed!”
Later on Thursday Jimmy Kimmel framed yet another plea for gun control as a charge to Trump directly. “Children are being murdered. Do something,” Kimmel said. “We still haven’t even talked about it. You still haven’t done anything about this. Nothing. You’ve literally done nothing.”
Trump’s handling of the tragedy mirrored his response to last week’s scandal, White House staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation over reports that domestic-violence accusations prevented him from securing the proper security clearance. As his aides failed to detail the process that led to Porter’s exit, Trump added fuel to the controversy by initially saying he only wished Porter well, lamenting that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” and failing to strongly condemn domestic violence.
In the first hours after the Parkland shooting, the only statement from the White House was that Trump was “aware” and monitoring the situation. Then on Thursday morning he issued a tweet that seemed to suggest the shooter’s neighbors and classmates deserve blame for failing to alert authorities about his concerning behavior — though people did reach out to police and the FBI, and they were unable to intervene.
Twenty hours after gunfire was first reported, Trump finally made a six-minute statement from the White House. But it was blasted for being so generic that it could have applied to any tragedy. He also failed to use the word “gun” once, which was seen as an effort to comfort gun owners scared that children being murdered might curtail their Second Amendment rights.
(Similarly, when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin remarked at a hearing on Thursday, “It’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues,” he felt the need to clarify later that he was in no way calling for new gun laws.)
During his speech Trump said he would be meeting with governors and attorneys general to discuss school safety, but he offered no hints about what type of action he might call for. In a statement, the Democratic Attorneys General Association said, “We don’t know what the president’s plans are.”
It seems the general strategy is to lie low and wait until Americans shift focus to some other topic. Politico notes that the White House daily briefing was delayed twice on Wednesday, then canceled, along with Thursday’s briefing. “I suspect they didn’t want split screens,” said former president George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer. “White Houses have been burned by split screens before.”
Trump said he’s making plans to visit the Parkland community, but so far the White House has offered no details on the trip. Trump canceled an event scheduled for Friday in Orlando, but is still set to spend the weekend at Mar-a-Lago, which is about 40 miles from Parkland. Aside from ordering flags to half-mast, the White House had nothing further to say about the tragedy after Trump’s remarks.
Trump can refuse to take any meaningful action to curb gun violence — while quietly rolling back gun-control laws — and ignore calls to show leadership on the issue. But the horrible reality is that he’s going to be repeating this cowardly process again and again.