Mass shootings like the Wednesday morning attack that wounded Rep. Steve Scalise are clarifying moments for most presidents, ones that test their ability to comfort a frightened nation and rise above the partisan fray.
This will require a very different demeanor for President Trump, who has taken to Twitter to send out inflammatory — and often inaccurate — comments after terror attacks like the recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England. Trump’s initial comments after the shooting that wounded Scalise and four others were classy, restrained, and clearly scripted.
“We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” Trump said. “Please take a moment today to cherish those you love, and always remember those who serve and keep us safe.”
Whether he can stay on message when he turns off his teleprompter and goes back to Twitter remains to be seen — especially if the conservative media he consumes so obsessively blames the Scalise attack on Democrats.
Take Trump’s response to the deadly assault in London earlier this month, which killed seven people and wounded dozens more. The president first used it to renew calls for his travel ban. He tweeted out unverified information labeling it a terror attack long before authorities had done so (NBC News memorably responded with a tweet explaining they weren’t “relaying president’s retweet, as the info is unconfirmed”). And he took London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s words out of context to make it seem as if Khan were dismissing the terror threat when he was instead trying to urge public calm.
What Trump didn’t do, in any of those tweets or his subsequent public remarks, was try to reassure the American public that a terror attack in London didn’t mean that ISIS militants lurked just around every corner here at home.
In the aftermath of the Scalise attack and the mass shooting in San Francisco that left three dead, the true test of the president will be what he says — and, more importantly, manages to avoid saying — in the days to come.
It’s genuinely not clear what Trump thinks about guns
On April 28, 2017, Trump strode into a packed auditorium in Atlanta and told National Rifle Association members who had gathered for the group’s annual convention that “the eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
Trump’s rollicking speech amounted to a high-profile thank-you to the NRA, which gave him $30 million and whose members backed him overwhelmingly. “You have a true friend and champion in the White House,” he added.
The rapturous reception obscured the fact that gun rights are a delicate issue for the president. The lifelong New York City resident has never shown a particular interest in guns or hunting. (That’s not the case with his two older sons, who have boasted about hunting big game and posted pictures of themselves with dead leopards and other animals.)
The second is that Trump’s views on guns have changed markedly over time and largely focused on the threat posed by Islamist extremists, not disenchanted white men like James T. Hodgkinson, the alleged shooter in today’s attack in Virginia.
Take the decades-long debate over banning the kind of assault rifles used in the mass murder of dozens of children and other innocents in Sandy Hook and San Bernardino. As NPR has detailed, Trump, in his 2000 book The America We Deserve, supported the 10-year ban on the weapons that then-President Bill Clinton had signed into law in 1994 (the law lapsed and hasn’t been renewed).
"I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun," Trump wrote. "With today's Internet technology we should be able to tell within 72 hours if a potential gun owner has a record."
Trump dropped that position during a March 2016 debate, when he said, “I don’t support it anymore. I do not support the ban on assault" weapons. PolitiFact promptly labeled it a “full flop.”
This is Trump’s moment to truly act presidential. The question is whether he’ll seize it.
Presidents of both parties have shone after mass shootings, often managing to successfully tread the line between mourning the dead and reassuring the living.
Take George W. Bush, who traveled to Virginia Tech in April 2007 after a student killed 32 people, including 27 students, in what remains the deadliest attack on a university in American history.
"It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering," Bush said in a six-minute address in the school’s Cassell Coliseum. "Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone — and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation."
Or take Barack Obama, who memorably brushed away a tear while speaking to reporters at the White House after the slaughter of 20 elementary school students and six adult staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.
"The majority of those who died today were children, beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old," Obama said. "Our hearts are broken today for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers, of these children."
Trump has yet to confront mass killings on the scale of Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech. I pray he never has to, even though I fear — given how easy it is to acquire military-grade weaponry — that he eventually will. The question Trump will face then, as he faces to a lesser degree now, is whether he’ll be able to comfort a worried nation as well as his predecessors did, and whether he’ll have an answer to the scourge of mass shootings that continue to plague America.
Trump knew how to campaign for the presidency, and for today, at least, he showed that he also knows how to act presidential. The question now is whether he can continue to be what the country needs him to be in the days to come.