The day after a gunman allegedly motivated by anti-Hispanic hatred killed 22 and wounded dozens in El Paso, Texas, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. – like most Democratic presidential contenders – connected the attack to President Trump’s own incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric. Sanders pointed at Trump’s “racist” statements for “creating the kind of violence” that rattled El Paso on Aug. 3.
But to Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the El Paso massacre evoked another attack with political overtones: The 2017 shooting by a left-wing activist and former Sanders volunteer that left Scalise in critical condition. On Sunday, the Republican House minority whip said he never blamed Sanders for that attack and that Democrats, conversely, shouldn’t attribute the El Paso violence to Trump.
“To try to assign blame to somebody else is, I think, a very slippery slope,” Scalise said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” appearing just before Sanders on the show. “The president is no more responsible for that shooting as your next guest, Bernie Sanders, is for my shooting. He’s not, by the way, responsible. The shooter is responsible.”
Sanders, responding moments later, drew a contrast between the two shootings by noting that he condemns “all forms of violence,” while arguing that Trump encourages it at his fiery rallies filled with regular verbal attacks on immigrants.
“He creates a climate where we are seeing a significant increase in hate crimes in this country,” Sanders said. “He’s creating the kind of divisiveness in this nation that is the last thing we should be doing.”
The exchange illuminated the divide between Democrats, who have roundly blamed Trump for setting the stage for the El Paso massacre and urged more gun control measures, and Republicans who have shied away from criticizing the president while pushing for more restrained responses, such as more thorough background checks.
Scalise used his own experience with gun violence to make similar arguments on Sunday. On June 14, 2017, he was practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game with other GOP politicians when James T. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old unemployed man from Illinois, began shooting at the field with an assault-style rifle. The Louisiana congressman was hit in the hip and narrowly survived. Hodgkinson, who was killed by police, had volunteered with Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign and written anti-Trump letters.
On “Face the Nation,” Scalise suggested the political motivations of attackers are less important than finding ways of “rooting out” mass shooters before they get weapons. Tying Trump to the El Paso attack is a political ploy for Democratic presidential candidates, he argued.
“I know they’re running for president and might not like Donald Trump’s views but stop this ridiculous assessment of blame to someone other than the person who is responsible,” he said.
When host Margaret Brennan noted that the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart was the “largest anti-Latino attack this country has ever seen” and asked whether Scalise would demand that Trump stop his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Scalise argued Trump has already done so.
“The president was very clear just the other day that there’s no place for this,” Scalise said. “He spoke out against racism. He spoke out against these kind of attacks.”
The congressman then pointed to the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, that killed nine people hours after the El Paso attack. The gunman in that case had previously espoused left-wing beliefs online.
“Look at the Dayton shooter and what his motivations were. Is anyone asking about that? Anybody on the left who he was inspired by?” Scalise said. “There’s no place for it. The shooter is responsible.”
Unlike the El Paso shooter, who authorities believe posted a manifesto blaming a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” for his killing spree and who allegedly later told police he was targeting “Mexicans,” authorities have yet to determine a motive in the Dayton shooting.
Sanders pushed back on the notion that he believes Trump wants to see violence, but nonetheless said he holds him responsible for creating a culture where white supremacist-related bloodshed has increased.
“No one else wants to see people mowed down and killed, and I’ve never said that. He does not want to see that,” Sanders said of the president.
But he pointed to Trump calling Mexicans “rapists” and moments like Trump offering to pay legal fees for supporters who beat up protesters, to say that “he creates the climate” for violence.
Sanders called on the Senate to return to vote on a measure the House passed in February that would expand background checks, saying that “the American people want strong gun control legislation.”
Scalise, though, criticized that bill, arguing that it “wouldn’t have actually done anything to stop these shootings” because the Dayton and El Paso shooters passed background checks and calling the measure “very dangerous” because it would hinder “law-abiding” citizens from transferring guns to each other.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Tim Elfrink