Special Coverage: Trump Delivers Remarks After Two Weekend Mass Shootings

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is Special Coverage from NPR News. We're awaiting President Trump, who's set to speak this morning, following this weekend's two mass shootings. The first happened in El Paso, Texas. A gunman there opened fire at a Walmart, killing 20 people and injuring 26 others. Police believe the suspect posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online ahead of the shooting. And just hours later, a gunman opened fire in Dayton, Ohio. Police say he only shot for 30 seconds before they were able to take him down, but in that 30 seconds, he was able to kill nine people.

I'm joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, along with political correspondent Scott Detrow and senior editor and correspondent for our Washington desk Ron Elving. Thanks to all three of you for being here.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: As, again, we await President Trump in his address to the nation. But I want to start with you, Tam, because the president, even though he's set to give this formal address momentarily, he has been up, he has been on Twitter this morning. What's he saying?

KEITH: Yeah. So he, in a series of tweets, is saying that he doesn't want those victims to die in vain and that he's calling for Republicans and Democrats to come together and get strong background check legislation. One part of this tweet that is a little odd is that he suggests marrying that legislation with immigration reform. Couple of reasons why that is odd is that immigration reform and gun legislation are two of the most intractable political matters that Congress just hasn't been able to deal with. Numerous bipartisan efforts have failed.

MARTIN: Right. Even taking these things in isolation is difficult, as you point out; to marry them together would seem impossible.

KEITH: Right. And then there's the other matter of - the shooting in El Paso has been tied to anti-immigrant sentiment from the shooter, allegedly. And so then to tie gun legislation to immigration is just strange in light of the - what happened with this shooting.

MARTIN: Right. And we should say, critics of the president are drawing a connection between the rhetoric that this president has used when talking about immigration and the motivations of the shooter in El Paso, who, in this, you know, screed that he posted, said he was trying to put off an invasion of immigrants.

KEITH: And invasion is a word that President Trump himself has used repeatedly, particularly at rallies, in talking about migrants trying to come to the country - the migrant caravans over the last year or so. He has frequently called it an invasion, as he did at a rally in Florida this past May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When you see these caravans starting out with 20,000 people, that's an invasion. I was badly criticized for using the word invasion. It's an invasion. And it's also an invasion of drugs coming in from Mexico, OK? It's an invasion of drugs. They all better be careful because, you know, we're destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of people a year with the drugs that are pouring across our southern border.

KEITH: The president was talking some more...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They better damn well be careful.

KEITH: ...And said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But how do you stop these people?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Shoot them.

TRUMP: You can't. There's...

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: That's only in the panhandle you can get away with that stuff.

KEITH: ...Hear there is one of his supporters shouted loudly, shoot them. And President Trump sort of laughed and made a joke of it.

MARTIN: Scott Detrow, this is something that the president this - these kinds of divisive remarks, we've heard him make them - give a similar message from the Oval Office.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Sure, he has. And one thing I was thinking about - especially as several of the Democrats running for president are drawing direct ties between the rhetoric and the possible motivation of this shooting and other incidents of hate crimes, of targeting immigrants, of targeting various ethnic groups with things the president says - is that, if you go back to the beginning, President Trump has made the idea of immigrants, immigrants in the country illegally especially, being dangerous a central part of his political rhetoric.

In fact, he spent a lot of time talking about that in the only prime-time Oval Office address he has given in his presidency, perhaps the highest symbolic moment that a president has to get a message out to the country. This is what he said back in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Over the last several years, I've met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I've held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible. I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices and the sadness gripping their souls. How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?

DETROW: And that has been - again, going back to the day that he announced his presidential campaign, talking about Mexico sending rapists into the United States, this has been a central argument from the president. And I've instructed how increasingly blunt Democrats have been in painting him as someone who has an argument of us versus them.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, no matter who the president, has often talked about how she tries very hard to be respectful to the presidency - has recently begun calling President Trump's rhetoric, make America white again. And particularly coming from her, who is not often a backbench bomb-thrower, I think is notable.

MARTIN: Ron, we're expecting the president to come to the podium any moment now. But how do you see this moment?

ELVING: It also takes me back to the post-San Bernardino moment - December 2, 2015. Donald Trump is still one of the Republican candidates. He was not dominating the field at that time. But after the horrific shooting in San Bernardino by a couple of people who had come from the Middle East, the president said, Donald J. Trump - these are his words, referring to himself in the third person - is calling for a total ban on all Muslims coming into the United States. And after that, his candidacy took off, and he was never headed (ph) again and became the dominant figure in the Republican Party.

MARTIN: Tam, we've heard the president give a scripted kind of address from the White House before. But they feel so different than when he is speaking off the cuff, than when he's at a rally. In those settings, they seem to be more his element. Do we know what this is supposed to be? Is this a teleprompter address?

KEITH: Yeah. This is an address in the diplomatic treaty room with a teleprompter. And when President Trump has given these sorts of speeches, he sticks to the script. And you got a hint at what that script might say in remarks that he delivered yesterday under the wing of Air Force One, as he was headed back from his golf resort in New Jersey, saying that hate has no place in this country. He also talked about mental health and said - as he often does after mass shootings, saying that, you know, there is a mental health problem, and that needs to be addressed.

And one of his allies - and I don't know what the speech is going to say. But one of his allies, Lindsey Graham, as well as President Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, have both talked about possibly enacting red-flag laws. These are laws that would say - they exist in a few states, including California - that say, if someone is a risk to themselves or others, law enforcement could temporarily take their weapons away.

MARTIN: All right, President Donald Trump from the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN: You're listening to Special Coverage from NPR. We just heard President Trump wrap up scripted remarks from the White House. He appears to be taking some questions from reporters in the room, and - actually, he didn't take any questions. It appears that he's just left the podium.

I am in studio with NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, political correspondent Scott Detrow and NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who were all listening in to the president's remarks. Ron, we heard the president utter the words evil, wicked, referring to at least one of the gunmen as a twisted monster. And at the same time, he said that the country, Congress, the government needs to act with, quote, "urgent resolve" to make sure these massacres don't keep happening. What does that mean to President Trump?

ELVING: It means that he wants Congress to do something that he can point to and say, see, we're doing the best we can, without tackling - without grasping the middle that we all understand with respect to these, which is gun rights in America, the Second Amendment. That is an enormous, enormous obstacle to all efforts that have been made to strengthen background checks so that they really keep guns out of people's hands, so that military-style weapons are not readily available, even to the kind of people that the president just described.

He did run through a catalogue of things the administration has done, including bump stocks, banning bumps stocks that were used in the Las Vegas shooting, and a number of other things that I think gun control advocates would have to say were steps in the right direction. But it's clear that this list of things that he mentioned, while all of them - some of them are already in place in some states, as Tam has said, all of those things would be steps in the right direction, but they're only going to be considered minor steps.

MARTIN: Scott?

DETROW: And I think that there is a long track record at this point of President Trump coming out in favor of some sort of gun control measure in the immediate wake of a shooting and then quickly scaling that back. The best example is this long, extended meeting with lawmakers in the Cabinet Room that happened shortly after the Parkland shootings last year, where President Trump agreed with Democrats over and over again and, at one point, said something along the lines of, you should figure out a way to take away the guns first; we can figure out due process later.

Republicans in the room were very shocked. You could read it in their faces. They talked to the president very quickly and made it clear Republicans would not support any sort of broad gun control measure that he was talking about. Very quickly the president changed his tune on that, and not much of anything happened.

The Democrats control the House right now and have passed several gun control measures earlier this year. You can expect them to double down on that when they come back to Washington, D.C., at the end of this recess. But any sort of legislation along those lines has not moved at all in the Republican-controlled Senate.

MARTIN: Tam, you referenced it earlier - before the president got going with his remarks - that this morning he had tweeted, hey, maybe there's a solution with some kind of increased background checks. We could tie that to immigration reform, some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. We did not hear the president reference that, though, in the scripted remarks.

KEITH: Well, the other thing that is fascinating here is he didn't even talk about background checks in the scripted remarks. That was something that he tweeted, that he thought stronger background checks would be a good idea. He didn't mention that here. Instead, he focused on mental health and these so-called red-flag laws.

But there is another thing that we need to talk about that the president said in this speech - he came out very clearly and he said, quote, "We must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy." That was a clear and firm statement from the president of the United States and a president who has at times found it difficult to say those words in that order.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, we'll remember the scripted remarks that he made after the Charlottesville protests that ended with violence and fatality. And the way that he equivocated - I guess is the right way to say it - after giving scripted remarks that some pointed out as perhaps not being the words that he would have scripted for himself and then coming off and saying something that seemed to undermine those very remarks a day later.

KEITH: Yeah, he was - a day later in the lobby of Trump Tower. It was supposed to be about infrastructure and transportation, but he got asked about Charlottesville. And he said - and I will quote this. - yes, he says, there were neo-Nazis. There were some very bad people in that group. But, quote, "you also had people that were very fine people on both sides."

And he has never been able to live that down because, on one side, you had people who were protesting against the white supremacists, and on the other side, you had people who were marching in the streets with Tiki torches saying, Jews will not replace us...

MARTIN: Right.

KEITH: ...Which is a pretty clear statement of white supremacy.

DETROW: And in fact, former Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that that is the moment he decided to run for president and makes that response a central part of the message that Biden delivers on the campaign trail.

I think, you know, a lot of things that the president said in the speech today, you have to look back at the way that he's acted, the way that he's talked, the way that he's tweeted, talking about the dark recesses of the Internet. Several times we have seen ways that the president will tweet from his Twitter account memes or graphics or statements that came from, you know, places like 4chan, places where this type of conspiracy...

MARTIN: The very things he was condemning in his remarks today - these dark recesses of the Internet.

KEITH: The dark recesses of the Internet.

DETROW: Absolutely. And him saying hate has no place in America, hate devours the soul. I think you look - his presidency often thrives on picking fights, making personal attacks against political opponents.

MARTIN: And these red flag laws - does it behooves us to just take a minute - if this is what the president is proposing, Tam, what are these laws? What's the hindrance to getting them passed?

KEITH: Yeah. So Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, who is a close ally of the president's, is the one who is talking about it now most prominently. These are laws that would say that if someone is deemed a risk to himself or others, someone who catches on to this or is their family could report them to law enforcement, and at least temporarily their weapons could be taken away through an accelerated due process.

MARTIN: Ron Elving, the president talked about cultural change being difficult. He was calling for cultural change. But what he means by that - he was referencing video games, the glorification of violence in American culture. Advocates of stricter gun control and gun policy often talk about America's gun culture, that that is a part of of American-ness of - that the president did not address in his call for a change in the culture.

ELVING: I think it's a fair description of our political culture in general to say that we have normalized a lot of demonization of people, that the president himself has indulged in the demonization of the other, saying that people coming from Mexico were bringing crime, bringing drugs, that they were rapists and so on.

And then what we do is we tell people that they have a perfect right to have military-style weapons in their homes to train with them, to learn how to use them well, and then if they use them, we call them insane. We say, well, those people are mentally disturbed. Those people are somehow wrong in their heads. And we talk about mental health laws and trying to identify people who are too twisted, to act upon some of the impulses that they've been encouraged to act upon by the media culture and the political culture in general.

MARTIN: Scott, you mentioned how vice president - former Vice President Joe Biden has talked about some of this in reference to Charlottesville and how - his campaign's been motivated by what he sees as Donald Trump's divisive language on race, also immigration, the other-izing (ph) of a lot of groups. What are other Democratic hopefuls talking about in relation to these shootings of the past couple of days?

DETROW: Well, sure. I think two fronts here - first of all, when it comes to gun measures, there is widespread agreement across the Democratic field to do a whole bunch of things, including background checks, bans on these types of assault-style weapon, you know, rifles. Several of those measures across the board - Democrats running for president want to do that and have increasingly prioritized that.

And I think there is a broader willingness to be blunt about - from the candidate's point of view, be blunt about the fact that they believe that President Trump is someone who sows the hatred that he was talking in this speech just now about trying to tamp down. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, spoke about this this weekend on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: The president has embraced white nationalists. He has encouraged white nationalists. He is there with white nationalists. And when white nationalists embrace him and call him their friend, you know, I take them at their word on that.

DETROW: And California Senator Kamala Harris; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders - you can go down the list of Democratic presidential candidates, and they have all been equally blunt about this view.

MARTIN: Tam, I also want to note that the president extended his apologies to the people of Mexico and Mexico's president, which stands in such sharp contrast to how we have heard this president talk about the Mexican people and immigrants from that country in particular.

KEITH: Yeah, he did give his condolences because there were some Mexican nationals that were killed and injured in El Paso. El Paso is right there on the border, right next to Mexico, and families come across the border to shop at that Walmart and other - and do other shopping in the United States.

And President Trump - I think that if I were to channel what the president and his supporters would say, is that he is specifically only talking about people who are coming to the country illegally; he's not talking about everyone else, and that in particular, he's often talking about gang members, and that is the distinction that they would draw. But certainly, he is often - if that is his intent, he's often loose with his language and paints with a pretty broad brush about people who come to this country or who are in the country illegally or legally.

MARTIN: I want to close by playing a clip from the president's address here. He is speaking about the shooter in El Paso and how hate has no place in this country. I'll summarize it here. The president said, these sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, devours the soul. The president there clearly speaking out, trying to respond to critics who have drawn a connection to the motivations of the shooter in El Paso and the president's own divisive rhetoric over the last months and years.

You've been listening to Special Coverage from NPR. We've been joined by NPR's Ron Elving, NPR's Tamara Keith and NPR's Scott Detrow. We were listening to the president speaking from the White House this morning. Again, Special Coverage on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.