President Donald Trump has mastered the art of the swaggering politician, but when tragedy strikes, he has struggled to find his footing.
By projecting the persona of a chin-out American leader eager to punch first and deal with the consequences later, Trump is missing the softer touch that past presidents have effectively used to bring the country together in times of crisis.
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The same cycle played out again amid a weekend of violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump stated Saturday that “many sides” were to blame for the protests that rocked the college town, and he took to the familiar confines of Twitter to offer his condolences to the families of three people killed over the weekend. “So sad!” the president wrote at the end of one of his weekend social media posts, where he also wished “best regards to all those injured.”
But it wasn’t until Monday — some 48 hours after the deadly events — that Trump made a bid to assume the role of “empathizer-in-chief,” reading out publicly the names of those who had died while directly condemning the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Trump’s initial wavering was seen by critics as a political nod to a base of supporters who helped lift the Republican last November to the White House. It also reflected something seen throughout Trump’s presidency: His natural instinct has been to respond with force to terrible events, saving the compassion for his surrogates or private interactions.
“He’s missing an empathy gene. It’s just not natural to him,” said former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Peter Wehner. “When people who don’t have empathy try to fake it, it doesn’t come across very well.”
Trump’s difficulty in dealing with national tragedies — particularly those that are racially charged — is not new. He was uncharacteristically silent in the immediate aftermath of the February killing of an Indian immigrant in Kansas that was investigated as a hate crime, as well as the fatal stabbing in May of two men defending a Muslim woman riding a commuter train in Portland, Oregon.
As a presidential candidate, Trump’s responses to tragedies struck many as tone deaf. He tweeted “appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism” after a gunman killed 49 people in June 2016 at a gay Orlando nightclub in an ISIS-inspired attack. Trump was also quick to label an explosion last September in New York City, in which no one was harmed, as terrorism before authorities had confirmed the nature of the attack.
White House aides note Trump has a compassionate side that may not come across in public but is routinely on display for those who know him well. They cite his decision in April to launch 59 cruise missiles in Syria after seeing photos of children dying after President Bashar Assad’s government attacked them with chemical weapons, as well as his invitation to the widow of a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen to attend his first speech to a joint session of Congress. Trump also spent two hours this spring visiting wounded soldiers at a suburban Washington military hospital, signing baseballs, taking pictures and talking with the service members about their favorite restaurants.
“He goes out of his way to help people in the moments you least expect,” said White House adviser Hope Hicks. “He doesn’t often publicize these moments, which makes them all the more genuine.”
Trump also received plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike for the temperament he displayed in June after a gunman opened fire on GOP members of Congress during a morning baseball practice. Speaking in the Diplomatic Room at the White House hours after that attack, which sent House Majority Whip Steve Scalise to the hospital in critical condition, Trump made a plea for national unity.
Still, by most accounts, Trump has fallen far short of modern presidents who have taken on the role of grief-counselor-in-chief in the wake of national tragedies.
“He’s been dismal at unifying the country,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “In the wake of Charlottesville, people were waiting with bated breath that he might have a Reagan or Obama moment and pull us together, but instead he seemed to go back into self-promotion of his economy and a limp — at best — statement about the deaths and refusing to talk about white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”
Brinkley, like several others from both sides of the political aisle, noted the unusual circumstances of Trump initially declining to verbally confront the white supremacists behind Saturday’s violence in Virginia given the president’s apparent glee in targeting everyone from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to cable news host Mika Brzezinski.
By most accounts, Trump’s approach to tragedy differs greatly from the chief executives before him. National events such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats and John F. Kennedy’s news conferences have evolved in recent decades to more intimate and emotional moments between the president and the people — from Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office speech after the Challenger disaster to Bill Clinton’s remarks in Oklahoma City after a domestic terrorist killed 169 people in a bombing. George W. Bush helped unify the country in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, most famously with his address using a bullhorn at the site of the World Trade Center.
For Barack Obama, the role in which he repeatedly found himself cast during his presidency coincided with a slew of mass shootings, from a Colorado movie theater to a Connecticut elementary school to a grocery store in Arizona. The country’s first African-American president became increasingly emotional in his post-shooting speeches — he sang “Amazing Grace” in June 2015 during a eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina — and was clearly beleaguered by the weight of the tragedies and his inability to use the presidency to force major policy changes on gun control.
“This is kind of more of a John Wayne presidency,” Republican consultant Alex Castellanos said of the Trump White House. “Donald Trump will be able to stand on a pile of rubble like George W. Bush did and make sure our adversaries hear us. He won’t be the president who feels our pain.”
Trump, Castellanos added, is leading a “guy’s presidency.”
“And I think that’s part of why at times you see him reluctant to reveal his more feminine, nourishing, care-giving side, because he doesn’t have one. He was elected to bring order to a world that’s spinning out of control. Voters chose strength. Not compassion.”
Democrats see Trump’s handling of recent tragedies as missed opportunities — a selfish political calculation to speak to his base rather than respond in a way that can bring the country together.
“I think Trump’s severe narcissism has prevented him from developing any sense of empathy, which is a requirement for any good leader, and particularly a president,” said former Obama White House speechwriter Jon Favreau.
“When it takes the president of the United States three days to condemn racism and the KKK, it’s not unreasonable to wonder exactly how sincere he’s being,” added David Litt, another former Obama White House speechwriter.
For Trump loyalists, the outcry over Trump’s slow response to Charlottesville represented the latest unfair treatment of the president.
“First of all, I think the media standard for him is much higher than it was for Obama,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally. “The standard for Trump is much, much higher and much more hostile.”
While Gingrich defended Trump’s original response on Saturday, he also said he expected more. On Monday, Trump intimated that his previous statements had qualified as a firm denunciation of Nazis and white supremacists. Gingrich said he saw it that way, too, noting the president’s inaugural address had included a denunciation of racism.
“I think he probably thinks he’s clearer than his critics think he is,” Gingrich said.
But some of Trump’s most steadfast defenders say they are still bewildered by his response. The president’s remarks have been “terrible,” said Ari Fleischer, the former George W. Bush White House press secretary who often defends Trump on Twitter.
“It reinforces the worst criticisms about the president that many of his opponents made during the campaign,” he said. “It was a letdown. It was just a letdown.”
Fleischer said he understood Trump’s desire to point out that some left-wing movements have also been involved in violence, but he argued that it was entirely inappropriate to deliver the “many sides” phrase without first condemning Nazis and the KKK.
While Monday’s statement stanched the bleeding, Fleischer said the damage had already been done.
“He’ll never make up the ground he lost by waiting for two days, but at least he didn’t try to box his way out of this corner,” he said. “I mean, he threw in the flag.”
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