US 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.
“The job you have done is incredible,” told police officers and first responders in El Paso. Following his two visits, Trump also told reporters, “We had an amazing day…the love, the respect for the office of the president…I wish you could have been there to see it.”
But in both cities that he visited, crowds of protesters gathered to confront the president and condemn his visit. Some held signs reading “Trump is racist,” “Love over hate” and “Send him back!”
“He has used our community as a prop in the past, misrepresented who we are, described us as dangerous city, a place to be feared, described people in my community, Hispanics, immigrants as people to be hated,” Democrat Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, told Al Jazeera.
“He needs to take responsibility.”
In Ohio, at least 200 protesters gathered outside the Miami Valley Hospital, where the president and first lady Melania Trump were meeting victims of the gun assault. At least nine people and the suspect were killed in Sunday’s attack, one of two mass shootings that shocked the country over the weekend.
The crowd set up a “baby Trump” blimp balloon and held signs reading “Do Something,” “Hate not welcome here,” and “You are why”. The protesters accuse Trump of stoking violence with his anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into the incident, saying the shooter explored violent ideologies.
The people I met today in Dayton are the finest anywhere! pic.twitter.com/sBxKZWExcR
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
Investigators believe the suspected shooter had posted a racist “manifesto” online prior to the gun attack. The document said the attack was a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas”. The language echoed that used by Trump, who has called migrants trying to enter the US “an invasion”.
Dayton’s Mayor Nan Whaley, who welcomed Trump at the city’s airport, said Trump would not be visiting the district where the shooting occured.
The Democrat said she agreed with the move, as “a lot of people that own businesses in that district are not interested in the president being there”.
“A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton,” she told reporters.
In El Paso, former Texas congressman and a native of the city, Beto O’Rourke, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, said Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and thus “has no place here”.
But as he left the White House for Ohio and Texas, Trump denied those accusations.
“My critics are political people,” Trump told reporters. “They are trying to make points. In many cases, they are running for president and they are very low in the polls … These are people who a looking for political gain.”
He also said 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 banning assault rifles.
“There is a great appetite and I mean a very strong appetite for background checks,” Trump said.
“I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with rage or hate, sick people. I’m all in favour of it.”
On Monday, Trump gave a speech in which he condemned “racism, bigotry and white supremacy” and said “these sinister ideologies must be defeated”.
He directed the FBI to “disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism”, and pledged mental health reforms, tighter internet regulation and wider use of the death penalty to combat mass shootings.
But Democrats accuse Trump of hiding behind talk of mental illness and the influence of social media rather than committing to laws they insist are needed to restrict gun ownership and the types of weapons that are legal.
Top Democrat leaders have urged the president 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.
But Al Jazeera contributor, Steve Clemons raised doubts about the ability of the US Congress to pass new gun control laws.
“It greatly pains me to say this. We have been at this point before, where people have said, ‘this is a turning point’. So right now, as we are 14 months from an election, Republicans have shown themselves to be weak, when it comes to working across aisle on reasonable gun control and gun regulation.”