By Glenn Thrush
June 13, 2016
The presumptive GOP nominee failed to meet the moment after Orlando.
The massacre in Orlando was the first big test of the 2016 general election campaign, and it exposed Donald Trump’s penchant for behaving reality-show small during moments that historically demand the stature of a president.
Trump had a potent policy point to make — that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are soft on radical Islamic terrorism – a view that, if articulated carefully, could move the presumptive GOP nominee out of his electoral cul-de-sac of white Republicans and right-wing independents.
“Last night, our nation was attacked by a radical Islamic terrorist,” Trump wrote in a statement released late Sunday, summing up the sentiments of most Republicans and many independents who think Obama and Clinton are weak on religiously fueled acts of terror.
But few will remember that, not with the way Trump behaved in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. He could have appeared dignified, controlled, in-command, following the time-tested presidential path blazed by George W. Bush in 2001 and Obama on Sunday. Instead he bellowed like Ralph Kramden throwing I-told-you-so over his shoulder at passengers on his bus.
“Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump tweeted triumphantly mid-Sunday, as the FBI and Orlando police were still pulling bodies from Pulse, a gay nightclub where at least 50 innocents were gunned down. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness and vigilance.”
Then, later, another self-inflicted pat on the back: “If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country anymore,” he added. “I said this was going to happen – and it is only going to get worse.”
The two presidential candidates, one who whispered and one who roared, will engage directly on Monday. Clinton has canceled her first dual campaign appearance with Obama in Wisconsin on Wednesday and is expected to deliver more extensive remarks on Orlando today. Trump scrapped a scheduled Monday rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to deliver an address dealing with “the serious threats facing all Americans” at a Manchester-area college.
They both will confront an attack in Orlando, Disney’s town, that is as hard to comprehend politically as it is to absorb emotionally — an atrocity that defies the easy political pigeonholing candidates and reporters crave.
The shooter was, according to late reports, inspired by the terrorist group known as ISIS or ISIL -- but he was a New York-born American citizen who spoke unaccented English and led a middle-class life. And while Omar Mateen was clearly motivated by his faith, he was also impelled by raw bigotry – reportedly targeting a gay night club because he was disgusted by the sight of men kissing men. Complicating matters, Mateen’s crime seems to have less to do with bad anti-terror policy than iffy oversight: The FBI investigated him twice, then let him fall of its radar, and he worked as a gun-toting security guard for years despite suspected sympathies with radical Middle Eastern terror groups.
In poll after poll, voters of all stripes have identified terrorism as a top concern. But the public is sending mixed messages about which candidate – the former secretary of state on duty during Benghazi or the rich-kid developer who accepted multiple draft deferments during Vietnam – is most qualified to be commander-in-chief.
Only 12 percent of respondents to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month said Trump had the “temperament” to be president – but he’s consistently led her by double-digits among voters asked who would be better on the issue of terrorism. Few voters trust her, but Clinton defeats Trump decisively when people are asked who would improve the country’s standing in the world, and on issues of temperament and experience.
During the Republican primary, Trump adopted the same damn-the-torpedoes approach he adopted Sunday – he infamously cited a fabricated account of Muslims dancing on Jersey rooftops in the wake of 9/11 after terror attacks in Paris and Brussels – and saw his popularity increase.
But now he’s performing on a much bigger stage and voters have demanded a more measured approach. “These are the moments that define a country,” said Mo Elleithee, director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and a former Clinton staffer. “You are either big and unifying or you’re not.”
In both of their statements, Clinton and Obama took a vastly different approach than Trump, an effort to reassure born of shared liberalism and experiences with mass-casualty terrorism. They focused on the heroism of law enforcement, the emotional toll of the tragedy, and highlighted a tangle of other issues embodied by the killings – gun control, violence against the LGBT community and the broader societal issue of hate. In her statement, Clinton conflated “terrorists or other violent criminals,” infuriating even conservatives who detest their presumptive GOP nominee.
“We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” the president said a few hours earlier, in lock-step with the former rival he endorsed last week.
“The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing and to live… This is a sobering reminder that attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us.”
But as the sun rose in the oppressively hot east, so did the candidate’s Twitter temperature.
By midday he was calling for Obama’s resignation for failing to confront the threat of Muslim extremism – then he electioneered against Clinton, retweeting a fan who wrote, “We cannot have Hillary as president. We will be in so much trouble.”
Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush aide, who has led the Stop Trump movement, summed up the views of many critics who accused the presumptive GOP nominee of turning an “us” moment into a “me” one. “Someone who is so desperate for validation that they need to congratulate themselves after a terrorist attack has psychological issues they need to resolve,” he said.
For once, however, here was an issue where Trump won points for substance. James Woolsey, Bill Clinton’s CIA chief, told Fox News that Obama’s failure to call out Islamic extremism by name (for fear of alienating anti-ISIS Muslim leaders in the region), was dangerous. “This reluctance is doing real damage. You can’t effectively fight something if you can’t discuss it.”
There is also a political counterargument for Trump’s unconventional course. He speaks the Lingua Americana of the white working class, even his critics acknowledge, and his call for a war on ISIS – as well as his proposal to ban the entry of new Muslim immigrants until the region stabilizes – has an appeal in battleground states. “There’s a lot of people in western Pennsylvania, some of them Democrats, who think this guy is the only one who knows what he’s doing,” said a long-time Clinton aide. “There’s some smugness on the campaign about this, but he’s dangerous.”
The issue tends to break down along party lines – Democrats overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s Muslim ban, as many as 70 percent of GOP primary voters in some states expressed support, according to exit polls. But Trump – who has repeatedly touted his own “strength” while deriding Clinton, Obama, and just about everybody else as “weak” – could make inroads with an electorate increasingly shocked and anxious by the encroachment of terrorism on the homeland.
About six in 10 Americans now have a negative view of Islam, according to a recent poll commissioned by left-leaning Brookings, although their views of individual Muslims are more sanguine.
How the American public will respond to Orlando remains the critical question and the most difficult to predict. Operatives in both campaign said the reaction on Sunday was surprisingly muted – a product of a sleepy early summer weekend, shock, or, worst of all, a collective national feeling that mass shootings are, like tornadoes, naturally-occurring events that roar in and out at tolerable intervals.
The difference between the candidates’ responses to the killings reflects a split in strategy – Trump sees foreign policy as a proxy for his flexed-bicep vision of a revived American foreign policy, besting China and Russia in artful international deals. Clinton, like every Democratic president since FDR, is running on the economy.
Several Clinton insiders, speaking before Orlando, told POLITICO they believed foreign policy wasn’t likely to be a dominate issue in November even if a San Bernadino-type attack happened; they were much more concerned about a possible economic downturn – suggested by last month’s anemic jobs growth – and still intend to run on pocketbook issues, along with a carpet-bombing campaign against Trump who enters the general election with approval ratings even worse than Clinton’s.
“The more we make this a referendum on Trump, the better off we are,” said a prominent Clinton backer. “Lucky for us, he insists on making it all about him.”
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