WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two mass shootings that killed 29 people in Texas and Ohio reverberated across the U.S. political arena on Sunday, with some Democratic presidential candidates accusing President Donald Trump of stoking racial divisions while he insisted “hate has no place in our country.”
Dozens were also wounded Saturday and early Sunday in shootings within just 13 hours of each other in carnage that shocked a country that has become grimly accustomed to mass shootings and heightened concerns about domestic terrorism.
The first massacre occurred on Saturday morning in the heavily Hispanic border city of El Paso, where a gunman killed 20 people at a Walmart store before surrendering. Authorities in Texas said the rampage appeared to be a racially motivated hate crime and federal prosecutors are treating it as a case of domestic terrorism.
Across the country, a gunman opened fire in a downtown district of Dayton, Ohio, early on Sunday, killing nine people and wounding at least 26 others. The assailant was killed by police, making the death toll for both shootings 30.
The El Paso shooting resonated on the campaign trail for next year’s presidential election, with most Democratic candidates repeating calls for tighter gun control measures and some drawing connections to a resurgence in white nationalism and xenophobic politics in the United States.
Several 2020 candidates said Trump was indirectly to blame.
“Donald Trump is responsible for this. He is responsible because he is stoking fears ad hatred and bigotry,” U.S. Senator Cory Booker said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Speaking to reporters on the airport tarmac in Morristown, New Jersey after spending the weekend at his golf resort nearby, Trump said: “Hate has no place in our country, and we’re going to take care of it.”
In his first public comments since the shootings, he said he had spoken to the FBI, Attorney General William Barr and members of Congress about what can be done to prevent such violence. But he offered no specifics, except to say he would make a statement in Washington on Monday morning.
The Republican president did not address accusations by critics about his anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric, though he earlier called the El Paso shooting a “hateful act” and “an act of cowardice.”
“This is also a mental illness problem, if you look at both of these cases. This is mental illness. These are really people that are very, very seriously mentally ill,” Trump told reporters.
Trump ordered flags at half-staff in honor of the victims.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney rebutted the Democrats’ allegations and attributed the shootings to “sick” individuals.
“There’s no benefit here in trying to make this a political issue, this is a social issue and we need to address it as that,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
It was a personal issue for Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who returned to El Paso after the attack in his hometown. Asked on CNN if he believed Trump was a white nationalist, he responded, “Yes, I do.”
“Let’s be very clear about what is causing this and who the president is,” O’Rourke said. “He is an open avowed racist and is encouraging more racism in this country.”
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders said he agreed that Trump was a white nationalist.
“It gives me no pleasure to say this but I think all of the evidence out there suggests that we have a president who is a racist, who is a xenophobe who appeals, and is trying to appeal, to white nationalism,” Sanders said on CNN.
“Clearly Donald Trump does not want anybody shooting down innocent people,” Sanders said, but his talk about invasions and calling Mexicans criminals risks leading unstable people to take up arms.
“White nationalists think he’s a white nationalist,” added U.S. Representative Tim Ryan.
A hallmark of Trump’s presidency has been his determination to curb illegal immigration. Trump has drawn criticism for comments disparaging Mexican immigrants and referring to the flood of migrants trying to enter through the U.S. southern border as an “invasion.”
In recent weeks, critics also accused Trump of racism after his attacks on members of Congress who belong to racial or ethnic minorities. Trump has denied he is a racist.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Pete Schroeder in Washington; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Bedminster, N.J., Michelle Price, Susan Cornwell and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Frances Kerry, Editing by Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool