In the face of the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, President Trump appeared Monday at something of a loss for words.
“I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness,” Trump said in morning remarks from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. “The answers do not come easy.”
Trump somberly followed the practiced script of past presidents in times of crisis. He called the massacre “an act of pure evil,” praised the first responders, promised support for the wounded, pledged to visit some of the families of 58 dead and quoted Scripture.
Out of the Las Vegas carnage, however, Trump identified no clear villain. He issued no call to action. A president typically quick to make black-and-white declarations spoke instead in shades of gray.
Trump long ago conditioned both his supporters and detractors to expect him to do the unexpected in the face of tragedy — and time and again, he has capitalized on terror to advance his agenda.
After a bomb attack on a train in London in September, Trump called for a “far larger, tougher and more specific” travel ban and condemned the person responsible as a “loser terrorist,” well before London authorities had declared that terrorism was the cause.
When an indebted gambler assaulted a Manila casino in June, killing dozens by starting a fire, Trump called the event “terrorism” at the White House, even though local police later said the attack was a robbery attempt unconnected to terrorism.
During his campaign, Trump made the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which was carried out by Islamic radicals, a centerpiece of his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. “I would handle it so tough, you don’t want to hear,” he boasted days after the attack.
And Trump reacted to the shooting at an Orlando nightclub with self-praise, suggesting that the incident was a symptom of weak Democratic policies. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he tweeted the day after.
But the Las Vegas massacre was different, both because investigators have found no evidence linking the shooter to a terrorist organization and because he was a white American, as opposed to a Muslim immigrant.
The emerging facts prevented Trump from following his typical playbook — to rally his supporters against Islamic extremism while speaking and tweeting in a combative, even belligerent tone to try to project strength and resolve.
Rather, Trump uttered just 574 words on Monday and tried to play the role of uniter.
“In moments of tragedy and horror, America comes together as one, and it always has,” the president said. “We call upon the bonds that unite us: our faith, our family and our shared values; we call upon the bonds of citizenship, the ties of community, and the comfort of our common humanity.”
The one constant in all of Trump’s responses is heavy praise for law enforcement and first responders.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary to former president George W. Bush, said Trump was “pitch perfect.”
“He spoke of human suffering. He thanked the first responders. He cited Scripture. He called for national unity. That’s what presidents do,” Fleischer said. “But the ultimate test is yet to come, and that’s when he’s on the ground in Las Vegas. That’s spontaneous, it’s emotional and it’s not off the teleprompter.”
Trump will visit Las Vegas on Wednesday to visit with families of the fallen, recovering survivors and first responders. A day earlier, on Tuesday, the president will fly to Puerto Rico to survey the devastation of Hurricane Maria after publicly criticizing and demeaning some of the U.S. territory’s elected leaders, who have begged for help amid a slow and fractured response by his administration.
At moments of crisis, Trump likes to demonstrate action and insert himself in the scene, as he did in Texas only a few days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall last month. But Trump has struggled with hitting the right notes, and was criticized during his first visit to Texas for not interacting with storm victims or witnessing devastation firsthand. He did so on a second trip to the state a few days later.
“You compare Trump to other presidents when they’ve seen tragedies in this country, be it from natural phenomenon or from disturbed or troubled people, and he just seems so remote and removed from the suffering,” presidential historian Robert Dallek said. “He just demonstrates such a lack of compassion and understanding for the troubles of those who are in greatest need and are limited by their circumstances.”
Trump’s response to the Las Vegas massacre created a clear contrast to the way former president Barack Obama responded to mass shootings in his second term. Trump made no reference to the preponderance of such mass slayings in recent years, nor to the roiling debate over gun restrictions.
Pressed later by reporters about the president’s position on gun laws, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders largely demurred. “There’s a time and place for a political debate,” she said, “but now is the time to unite as a country.”
By contrast, Obama said after the Oct. 1, 2015, shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Ore., which killed 10 people, including the 26-year-old shooter, “This is something we should politicize.”
For Obama, that meant trying to channel the grief over the tragedy to change gun laws. “Each time this happens I am going to say that we can actually do something about it, but we’re going to have to change our laws,” Obama said.
Cody Keenan, who wrote speeches for Obama, said that his boss became more convinced over the course of his tenure that the traditional response to tragedy — offering thoughts and prayers — was insufficient in the face of frequent mass shootings.
“We know what the debate is, and we shouldn’t be starting from scratch,” Keenan said. “If it’s just thoughts and prayers, it kind of suggests that you are not going to do anything about it.”
As a candidate, Trump had reacted to that same Oregon shooting with less specificity. “It sounds like another mental health problem,” he told The Washington Post that day. “We really have to get to the bottom of it.”
Back in 2012, Trump seemed more open to gun control in response to mass shootings. After Obama gave a speech pledging to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop future massacres after 26 schoolchildren were killed in Newtown, Conn., Trump tweeted, “President Obama spoke for me and every American in his remarks in #Newtown Connecticut.”
Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has written a history of the gun debate, said, “Many presidents have tried to use mass shootings to spur gun reforms. We can go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” Gang shootings in Chicago led to a push to outlaw machine guns in 1934, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy led to further regulations in 1968.
But this time, the president declined to make the killings in Las Vegas into a call for specific action.
Instead, he scripted a ceremony that distanced him from the vocal calls for change of his predecessor. On Monday afternoon, Trump walked from the White House with his wife, Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence. For nearly a minute, they hung their heads in silence for the victims in Las Vegas.