As President Donald Trump departed the White House on Wednesday to visit El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio — the sites of two mass shootings over the weekend that left 31 dead — he dodged a question about the rise of white supremacist violence in the United States, instead declaring that he is concerned about "the rise of any group of hate."
"I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate. I don't like it," Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. "Whether it's white supremacy, whether it's any other kind of supremacy. Whether it's antifa. Whether it's any group of hate."
"I am very concerned about it and I'll do something about it," he added.
Trump's refusal to point out the role ideology played in the El Paso massacre echoed his controversial 2017 speech after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a self-professed neo-Nazi killed a counter-protester. The president at the time infamously argued that the group of white supremacist marchers included "some very fine people" and assigned "blame on both sides."
Trump's remarks — in 2017 and on Wednesday — highlight the president's efforts to conflate the threat posed by a left-wing movement with white supremacists, who have cited Trump's own remarks after taking the lives of innocent people.
Despite antifa's increase in visibility, "2018 saw the highest percentage of right-wing extremist-related killings since 2012," according to the Anti-Defamation League. White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of those deaths, the group noted.
In late July, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress: "A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence."
So far this year, the deadliest mass shooting was carried out by an avowed white supremacist, who killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, last week. Federal authorities are treating the massacre as a case of domestic terrorism.
The shooter accused of carrying out the massacre in El Paso wrote in a racist screed that "this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas," directly echoing Trump's repeated warnings of "an invasion" at the border ahead of the 2018 midterm election cycle.
In addition, the gunman who opened fire in March at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, killing 50 people and injuring dozens more, allegedly praised Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose" and referred to immigrants as "invaders within our lands" in a manifesto shared prior to the attack.
Nevertheless, Trump and some Republican lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to label antifa — a title that evolved from shorthand for "anti-fascism" — as equally threatening as white supremacy, most recently by highlighting the Dayton shooter's alleged support for Democratic presidential candidates and progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as antifa.
"The Dayton killer was a left-winger, but don't blame Sen. Warren," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted.
So far, there is no evidence to suggest that the Dayton shooting was politically or racially motivated.
"There is absolutely no place for violence in our politics and Elizabeth and our campaign condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Kristen Orthman, a spokesperson for Warren's campaign, said in a statement on Tuesday.
"Leaders have a responsibility to speak out and to not incite violence. But let's be clear – there is a direct line between the president's rhetoric and the stated motivations of the El Paso shooter," she added. "This is an attempt to distract from the fact that Trump's rhetoric is inciting violence as extremist-related murders have spiked 35 percent from 2017 to 2018."
Trump has come under fierce criticism in the wake of the weekend's mass shootings, with lawmakers arguing that his incendiary anti-immigration rhetoric and reluctance to specifically reject white nationalism have contributed to increased violence.
He accused his opponents on Wednesday of "looking for political gain" by linking his comments to the El Paso shooting and insisted he would like to "stay out of the political fray," even though he attempted to tie the Dayton shooter to Democrats.
"That was a person that supported, I guess you could say Bernie Sanders, I understood. Antifa, I understood. Elizabeth Warren, I understood. It had nothing to do with President Trump," he said. "I don't blame Elizabeth Warren. I don't blame Bernie Sanders. These are sick people."
He also argued that his rhetoric "brings people together. Our country is doing really well," then called illegal immigration a "terrible thing for our country." He then claimed he has "toned down" his rhetoric.
But less than 14 hours earlier, the president assailed Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, whose district included El Paso, for allegedly using a "phony name to indicate Hispanic heritage" and told him to "be quiet!"
O'Rourke, whose full name is Robert Francis O'Rourke and has been called "Beto" since childhood, responded in a tweet: "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."
Trump is expected to receive a chilly — if not outright hostile — reception in El Paso and Dayton.
"This president, who helped create the hatred that made Saturday's tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso," O'Rourke tweeted Monday. "We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here."
Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, whose district includes nearly all of El Paso, also said Trump is "not welcome" in her hometown. She said Trump came into "one of the safest communities in the nation" in February, and months later, so did a gunman.
"Words have consequences," she said. "And the president has made my community and my people the enemy. He has told the country that we are people to be feared — people to be hated."
O'Rourke announced on Tuesday that he would be attending an event on Wednesday to pay tribute to the shooting victims and counter Trump's visit to the city.
"When President Trump comes to El Paso tomorrow, I will be joining our strong, beautiful, binational community at #ElPasoStrong. I hope to see you there," O'Rourke tweeted Tuesday night.
Trump has denied responsibility for inciting violence in the past, and he publicly condemned white supremacy Monday during his televised address.
"In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy," he said. "These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul."