Democratic candidates for president reacted strongly Sunday to two mass shootings that killed at least 29 people, calling on Congress to act decisively on gun control while denouncing a culture of hatred and white nationalism that some said emanated from the Trump White House.
Speaking to CBS News early Sunday, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke said President Donald Trump had "a lot to do with what happened in El Paso yesterday," arguing that Trump's rhetoric about immigrants and asylum-seekers was responsible for having sown "the kind of fear, the kind of reaction that we saw in El Paso yesterday."
"It's up to all of us to put an end to this racism and make sure that we don't just tolerate our differences, but as we've shown here in El Paso, we embrace them as the very source of our strength and our success," said O'Rourke, who is from El Paso and represented the district for years in Congress.
The pair of shootings on Saturday, in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, killed at least 29 people and injured dozens more. Law enforcement authorities are looking into whether the suspect in El Paso was connected to a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto that had appeared online minutes before the shooting. They said Sunday that they were investigating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.
Like O'Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey put the blame for the shootings on the president, saying, "Donald Trump is responsible for this."
"He is responsible because he is stoking fears and hatred and bigotry," Booker said of Trump. "He is responsible because he is failing to condemn white supremacy and see it as it is, which is responsible for such a significant amount of the terrorist attacks. He is responsible because he is president of the United States and has failed to do anything significant to stop the mass availability of weapons to people who intend to do harm."
The acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, called the shootings "a serious problem" on ABC, but denied that the president was to blame and rejected the idea that he had not taken seriously the threat of white nationalism.
"They are sick, sick people and the president knows that," Mulvaney said, referring to the attackers. "I don't think it's fair to try and lay this at the feet of the president."
In an interview on CNN, O'Rourke said Trump "is a racist."
"And he stokes racism in this country," he added. "And it does not just offend our sensibilities, it fundamentally changes the character of this country and it leads to violence."
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Asked in another CNN interview whether he believed Trump to be a white nationalist, he said yes. "The things that he has said both as a candidate and then as the president of the United States, this cannot be open for debate," he said.
Following the round of interviews on national political talk shows, O'Rourke stepped in front of dozens more television cameras in El Paso and made a declaration that has become a common refrain: "We cannot let this be the new normal."
Later, O'Rourke was approached by the parents of Joaquin Oliver, a student who was killed in the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018. Oliver spoke to O'Rourke at length, pleading with him to ensure that lawmakers find a way to curb gun violence.
Other Democratic candidates were more indirect in reference to the president's connection to the violence, and focused on the need to enact stricter gun controls and combat the influence of the National Rifle Association.
In a statement on Twitter Sunday morning, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, "We need to call out white nationalism for what it is — domestic terrorism," and added that "we need to call out the president himself for advancing racism and white supremacy."
We need to call out white nationalism for what it is—domestic terrorism. It is a threat to the United States, and we've seen its devastating toll this weekend. And we need to call out the president himself for advancing racism and white supremacy. pic.twitter.com/pdE9CAiQqx— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 4, 2019
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said he believed politicians and the White House were hesitant to condemn white supremacist terrorism because they were "embarrassed."
"At best he's condoning and encouraging white nationalism," Buttigieg added, speaking of Trump. "We have a president who made his career politically on demonising Mexicans — and now we're seeing reports that the shooter, yesterday, had his goal as killing as many Mexicans as possible. You don't have to use a lot of imagination to connect the dots here. It is very clear that this kind of hate is being legitimised from on high."
In a statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont excoriated the NRA and urged Trump and Congress to "listen to the American people, not the ideology of a right wing extremist organisation." Citing news reports, he said in no uncertain terms that the shooting appeared to be "yet another white nationalist domestic terror attack."
Mr. President: stop your racist, hateful and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Your language creates a climate which emboldens violent extremists.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 4, 2019
"We must come together as a nation to reject this dangerous and growing culture of bigotry espoused by Trump and his allies," Sanders said.
In a video Sen. Kamala Harris of California posted on Twitter early Sunday, she sounded exasperated as she implored Trump to "have the courage to act" and "do something."
Other Democrats were less willing to assign blame directly at the feet of Trump, but were still pointed in their critiques.
Former Vice President Joe Biden opened a campaign event Saturday evening in Las Vegas with remarks about the El Paso shooting, but focused more on fighting the NRA.
"What I can say without fear of contradiction: Enough is enough is enough, and it's been enough for the past, for the past five years," he said.
Biden called gun violence in America a "sickness" and insisted that the country could "beat" the NRA saying that even its members supported gun control measures like background checks and adding that one of his priorities as president would be combating gun violence.
"The bottom line is, we beat them before and we can beat them again," he said. "And it is my intention to do just that."
Former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro would not hold Trump as directly responsible for Saturday's violence as Booker had.
"The person that is responsible for the shooting is the shooter," Castro said. "At the same time, if you're in a position of leadership, you set the tone for the country, and there is no question that this president is setting a tone of division and fanning the flames of bigotry and of hate."
Written by: Jennifer Medina and Matt Stevens
Photographs by: Ivan Pierre Aguirre and Bridget Bennett
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES