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As the death toll from the shooting in Las Vegas rapidly rose, White House officials urged President Donald Trump to show restraint in his response: No speculative tweets, please. No over-the-top bluster.
White House chief of staff John Kelly encouraged a simple tweet of condolences. Aides wrote somber remarks that had Trump quoting Scripture. Some around the president were encouraged to hear him connecting to the tragedy on a personal level talking about his property and calling friends in Las Vegas, in a sign he was taking in the impact of the event.
The anxious counsel from his aides as Trump prepared to react to the mass shooting was a reminder of Trump’s troubled track record in such delicate moments. Trump often has had difficulty embracing a central role of the American presidency: consoling people dealing with intense grief, regardless of their political affiliation or support for the White House’s agenda. It’s a quality rarely debated or analyzed during a campaign, yet one that can shape the way people view the success of their president.
Trump’s challenges with empathy were on full display this past week as he responded to two disasters at once with very different results.
Trump ultimately stuck to the script in Las Vegas, avoiding controversy and assuming the role of national healer. That measured response stood in contrast to his uneven response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico. Trump lashed out at the mayor of San Juan, urged officials to say positive things about his administration and threw rolls of paper towels into the crowd at a relief center like he was tossing T-shirts at a sporting event.
This account is based on conversations with 11 White House aides and others who spoke with the president over the past week.
Presidents are remembered for the way they respond in moments of great tumult or trial.
Bill Clinton’s speech after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing helped him right his struggling presidency. George W. Bush’s bullhorn address while standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center helped heal the nation after the 9/11 attacks. Yet Bush’s presidency would never fully recover from the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which left many with the perception that he was detached from the suffering on the ground.
In the first days after Maria struck Puerto Rico, Trump was more focused on his feud with NFL players who were kneeling during the national anthem. As images of the devastation in Puerto Rico began appearing more frequently on television, aides intensified their briefings. Trump, however, complained about the U.S. territory’s debt and became fixated on the criticism from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, according to three White House officials and outside allies.
Trump decided to hit back on Twitter, ignoring advice from Kelly and homeland security adviser Tom Bossert to focus on the recovery.
The public has been watching.
Just 32 percent of Americans approve of how Trump has handled disaster relief in Puerto Rico, while 49 percent disapprove, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., called Trump’s visit to the island an insult.
“When we see the president of the United States go to Puerto Rico throwing toilet paper, paper towels, what is that saying to the American people? It is an affront,” Lewis said Thursday.
The president, however, believed his Tuesday trip went well, according to a person who spoke with him after the visit.
“I think he’s an old school John Wayne-type guy who doesn’t like to wear emotions on his shirt sleeves,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend and chairman of Newsmax. “He doesn’t cry in public and he doesn’t like men who do.”
White House communications director Hope Hicks described Trump as a “strong leader, but also a compassionate one. He cares deeply for the people of our country and he understands the importance of leading with his head, as well as his heart, especially in the most challenging of times.”
Kelly and other aides scripted out a more measured response for the president after the Las Vegas shooting that left 58 people dead. Trump largely followed the game plan, including avoiding public speculation about the motive of the shooter in a city where he owns a hotel. Trump consulted several friends there, including casino magnate and mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, about his response. Trump told aides he wanted to salute the law enforcement personnel he believes prevented the massacre from being worse.
Trump often struggled as a candidate to exude the kind of empathy that comes naturally to some politicians.
In the summer of 2016, aides tried repeatedly to explain to Trump why his attacks on Khizr Khan, a Muslim-American whose son was killed fighting for the U.S. military in Iraq, were off-putting to so many voters. One former campaign official said Trump was unmoved by arguments about the sacrifices Khan’s family had made for the country and couldn’t get past the fact that Khan had spoken out against the Republican nominee during the Democratic Party’s convention.
Trump’s staff tried to limit small, potentially emotional gatherings with supporters, knowing that Trump preferred the distance of a large, roaring crowd. In October, as he made a last-minute push to win Florida, advisers prepped Trump about the story of Miriam de la Pena, whose son’s plane was shot down by the Cuban government in 1996, according to another former campaign staffer.
But Trump was far more focused on the endorsement he was set to receive later that day and, as de la Pena choked up recounting her tale, his eyes wandered around the room, only turning to say “very sad story” when the tearful mother finished speaking.
Former advisers say Trump also appears to lack any understanding of the impact his often sharp-tongued tirades can have on aides. One adviser recalled being berated by Trump in the Oval Office, in front of multiple colleagues, in particularly humiliating fashion. The next day, Trump called the adviser on the phone and started joking as though the previous day’s outburst had never happened.