Donald Trump has paid visits to two cities reeling from mass shootings that left 31 dead and dozens wounded, but his divisive words preceded him and prompted large protests and biting political attacks.
The president and first lady Melania Trump flew to El Paso, Texas, late on Wednesday after visiting the hospital in Dayton, Ohio, where many of the victims of Sunday’s attack in that city were treated.
For most of the day, the Republican president was kept out of view of the reporters travelling with him, but the White House said the couple met hospital staff and first responders and spent time with wounded survivors and their families.
Mr Trump told them he was “with them”, said press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “Everybody received him very warmly. Everybody was very, very excited to see him.”
But outside Dayton’s Miami Valley Hospital, at least 200 protesters gathered, blaming his incendiary rhetoric for inflaming political and racial tensions in the country and demanding action on gun control.
In El Paso, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke spoke to several hundred people at a separate gathering. Mr O’Rourke has condemned Mr Trump as a racist instigator, but told his audience the open way the people of his home town treat each other could be “the example to the United States of America”.
22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I. https://t.co/dakFPKj0vJ
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 7, 2019
Emotions are still raw in both cities in the aftermath of the weekend shootings. Critics claim Mr Trump’s own words have contributed to a combustible climate that has spawned death and other violence.
Mr Trump’s motorcade passed El Paso protesters holding “Racist Go Home” signs, and he spent part of his flight between Ohio and Texas airing his grievances on Twitter, berating Democratic legislators, Mr O’Rourke and the press.
Mr Trump and the White House have forcefully disputed the idea that he bears some responsibility for the nation’s divisions, and he continued to do so on Wednesday.
“Meanwhile, the Dayton, Ohio, shooter had a history of supporting political figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and ANTIFA.” @OANN I hope other news outlets will report this as opposed to Fake News. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2019
“My critics are political people,” he said as he left the White House, noting the apparent political leanings of the gunman in the Dayton killings. He also defended his rhetoric on issues including immigration, claiming instead that he “brings people together”.
In Dayton, raw anger and pain were on display as protesters chanted “Ban those guns” and “Do something!” during Mr Trump’s visit.