Donald Trump's week from hell: After the horrors of El Paso and Dayton, GOP is in full retreat

In a week of pain, our impulsive president made one bad decision after another. Can Democrats seize the moment?

Published August 12, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump delivers remarks following mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH over the weekend. (YouTube/NBC News)
Donald Trump delivers remarks following mass shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH over the weekend. (YouTube/NBC News)

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In the Great Trump Debate, there are fine people on both sides: those who say he’s an evil genius pursuing a diabolical master plan and those who say he’s evil, but too impaired, too compulsive and too impulsive for any strategy needing forethought or self-discipline. The truth may lie in between, but last week was a big week for Team Impairment, and a terrible one for Trump.

After the carnage unleashed on El Paso and Dayton, Trump felt he had to visit both cities despite being welcome in neither. Trump taught the world how to diagnose malignant narcissism; he has no capacity for empathy or even a poor politician’s gift for pretending. He’s spent four years inciting racial hatred, slandering immigrants and kowtowing to the NRA. The El Paso shooter used Trump’s racist rhetoric in his online manifesto. Trump could have made his excuses and everyone would have understood.

Trump’s day of mourning began with his usual rage-based tweet fusillade. Of 29 tweets, 20 were attacks: on Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro and his twin brother Joaquin, the mayor of Dayton, the Federal Reserve Board, the State of California, others. Of six tweets pertaining to El Paso or Dayton, four were candid photos of Trump caught in the act of being admired. He mentioned the tragedy once (“They’ve been through so much. Sad!”) in a tweet that also bemoaned his suffering at the hands of his critics and rhapsodized over how much Dayton and El Paso loved him.

Trump fumed over a leaked video in which he lied to hospital personnel about the crowd size at an O’Rourke rally, but photos he released on purpose hurt him more. When all eight victims being treated at El Paso’s University Medical Center declined a Trump visit, the hospital lured two discharged patients back for a meet and greet. One of those was a two-month-old infant, whose parents had just died shielding her from gunfire. The pic of a grinning Trump giving thumbs up as Melania held the baby was bizarre and exploitative. (While we’re on the topic, hospital infections are a notorious public health risk. For a hospital to expose an infant to such risk for a mere photo op seems utterly reprehensible.)

As Trump comforted the afflicted, ICE was hauling in 680 undocumented Latinos at seven Mississippi poultry processing plants. Under Trump, ICE has never had a Senate-confirmed director. It has had five acting directors. At the time of the raid, current director Mark Morgan had been on the job for a week. Days later, children had not been reconnected to parents. ICE said the raid was conducted "in the normal course of business," but it was the biggest in a single state in U.S. history. The agency called the timing a coincidence, but you’d think a president who called off a bomber strike on Iran in mid-flight could postpone a raid on a poultry plant if he thought it served his interests.

Trump thought the raids served his interests. They didn’t. For one thing, the children were not in ICE custody and were thus freer than border children in cages to give press interviews. When 11-year-old Magdalena Gómez Gregorio sobbed convulsively into a camera, “I want my daddy … my dad didn’t do anything … he is not a criminal,” it tore at the hearts of all decent people.

Trump says he prioritizes criminal deportations, but like July’s 10-city ICE "sweep" meant only to rally his base and terrify families, the raids reminded voters outside his base of several things: The people Trump targets do jobs we don’t want for wages we can’t live on; they pay taxes to support programs that benefit us, not them; they’re the very people to whom we want to offer a path to citizenship. Even on his signature issue, Trump’s a soulless con man.

Trump’s PR disaster didn’t end in Mississippi. The night after he flew back from El Paso, the Washington Post broke a story about his company’s use of undocumented landscapers on properties up and down the East Coast. It was the second such exposé this year. The first focused on housekeepers at his resorts who were paid dirt wages and forced to work extra hours without pay.

Trump has been exploiting undocumented workers since long before he began manufacturing ties in China; indeed, since his earliest New York real estate days. Each time his company gets caught, Donald Trump Jr. says he’ll get right on it. The penalty for employing undocumented workers is up to $5,000 and six months in jail per worker. No plant owner was charged last week and it’s a safe bet Trump won’t indict himself any time soon, but people aren’t blind.

In the wake of Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton, Trump seeks cover on the issue of gun violence. Pundits say he may cave to the NRA. Not if he can help it. On Thursday, Mitch McConnell went on talk radio to warn listeners he’d be bringing a gun bill to the Senate floor. (Better they hear it from him first) He’d never risk saying such a thing if he weren’t planning a big move.

Last Wednesday the Post ran another exposé, this one on the NRA’s alleged attempt to buy a $6 million, 10,000-square-foot lakefront home for CEO Wayne LaPierre. The New York attorney general is looking into the matter. The group has ended the last three years in the red due to internal strife, lost membership and mounting legal fees. I have to admit it’s fun to watch.

McConnell’s stunning reversal recognizes a new equation in the politics of guns. For 60 years, a majority of voters have backed common sense gun laws but not as intensely as a minority has opposed them. The majority is now a vast majority and its passion matches the dwindling minority’s. It’s a new dawn.

Trump mumbles NRA pieties about guns and mental health. That takes gall. His top priority is repealing Obamacare. His alternative: A GOP plan to let fly-by-night insurers sell policies nationwide that don’t include any mental health coverage. If he got his way on both initiatives, a third of all Americans could see their mental health coverage sharply reduced or vanish altogether.

McConnell is "for gun safety" now because his Senate majority is at greater than advertised risk. With the right platform and candidates, Democrats could put as many as seven Republican Senate seats in play. One of them is McConnell’s in Kentucky. Suburban women won’t tolerate inaction. Neither McConnell nor Trump was moved by the sight of suffering. The only lives they’re trying to save are their own.

Trump’s core strategy is the weaponization of racism and racial fear. El Paso made even that game harder to play. The media is always playing catch-up with Trump. Only after he was elected did the Times replace "falsehood" with "lie" when passing on his latest whopper to its readers. A year later it was accepted usage to call Trump himself a "liar." Now, the modifier "racist" is gaining wider acceptance, and for the same reason: He is one.

Last week, Democrats wrestled with a thorny question: Is Trump a racist or a white supremacist? Who’s to say? Does prejudice make you a racist, or must you have a formal theory? Does hatred make you a white supremacist or must you take to the streets? Here’s an easier question: Who’s done more to foster racial fear and hatred in America, David Duke or Donald Trump? Trump by a mile, of course. Last week it got harder to pretend otherwise.

Investigating Trump remains a growing, diversifying industry, comprised of state prosecutors and attorneys general, plaintiffs’ lawyers, opposition researchers, hundreds of reporters and the U.S. House of Representatives, among others. On Thursday. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York rounded out Trump’s week from hell with this characterization of the House Judiciary Committee’s work:

This is formal impeachment proceedings … we will ... by the end of the year vote articles of impeachment to the House floor or we won’t, but that’s exactly the process we’re in ...

The news in Nadler’s pronouncement is that House Democrats have found a way to pursue impeachment without implicating every freshman caucus member in the decision. If they get their hands on the real impeachment road map — Trump’s tax returns — he’ll look back on weeks like this with fond nostalgia.

 None of these stories was the bombshell of the Democrats’ dreams; the one that forces every American to see Trump as he really is: a racist, a fascist, a narcissist, a criminal and a liar. What they do reveal is a man running out of moves who feels a net tightening.

Just three weeks ago an aged Robert Mueller shuffled out of his last hearing room. Trump gloated, sure he had slipped the noose. Now he knows better. He bet his re-election on racism, immigrant bashing, the NRA and the Christian right. Racism and immigrant bashing just got harder to sell. If the election is a referendum on gun violence or Roe v. Wade, so much the worse for him.

Trump loves to brag about his coolness under pressure, but as always, the truth is the opposite of whatever he just said. Last week his compulsion and impulsivity were on full display. We expect presidents to console us in times of tragedy, but knowing he can’t even appear outdoors in Dayton or El Paso, he should have stayed home. He should not have taunted his opponents, to say nothing of his hosts, but he truly can’t help himself. Henceforth, his stage-crafted immigration raids will serve mostly to expose his hypocrisy.

Democrats must also make smarter choices. It’s time to clear out the presidential field, to clarify the race but also to win the Senate. Of the seats worrying McConnell, two are in Colorado and Montana. John Hickenlooper and Steve Bullock, respectively, should run for those. A third is in Texas. In the Democrats' first presidential debate, Julián Castro seemed to imply he’s smarter than Beto O’Rourke. Who’s really smarter? Whoever drops out to run in the Texas Senate race first.

Trump has ceded all the moral high ground to the Democrats. To take full advantage they need to make their best case. It’s far from clear they know how to do that. It’s as if they forgot how to tell stories or explain issues. Consider the missed opportunities of just this past week.

Trump bellows about MS-13, but families caught in his sweeps aren’t gang members, they’re hard-working, law-abiding taxpayers, for whom 80% of Americans want a path to citizenship or legal residence. Who do we want arrested? Employers like him who exploit the helpless and mock the law. If it can be proved that Trump knows about his own closely held company’s hiring practices, it ought to be an article of impeachment.

Expanding mental health services won’t cure gun violence, but it’s still a good idea. Republicans who cite mental health after mass shootings also work to destroy Obamacare and circumvent state laws setting minimal mental health care coverage standards. If they win, millions of Americans will lose access to mental health services. The Republicans are running a shell game with no pea. Somebody should call them out on it.

Democrats must do a better job of helping voters connect these dots. Elizabeth Warren is the best at this by far. At the beginning of the race the word was that her wonkiness — read her mastery of policy — would remind people, in a bad way, of Hillary Clinton. It turns out she’s more like Bill Clinton, able to simplify and personalize complex issues in ways people can easily grasp. When she talks, the rest of the candidates should take notes.

Trump has also given Democrats a chance to forge a new conversation about racial justice. Three weeks ago, it seemed his attacks on "the Squad" might actually work. Then he savaged Rep. Elijah Cummings, most of Baltimore and all of San Francisco. Then came El Paso. Now Democrats have a chance to lay out a vision of racial justice that inspires every decent American. Trump gave us this teachable moment and the perfect teaching tool: himself.

I don’t know if the polls moved a point this week. I do know I saw Trump in trouble, making one wrong choice after another. It gives Democrats the chance to do what he can never do: Unite us.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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