SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. It's 1:34 Eastern on Monday, August 5. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover politics.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.
DETROW: We're going to talk today about the political fallout from back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. You know, mass shootings have depressingly almost become a norm in American life in terms of how they affect politics these days. They happen. Communities go through the routine of mourning. But for the rest of the country, it's quickly back to normal. But even with that background, two mass shootings happening on back-to-back days have really shaken the country and its politics. Twenty-two people were shot and killed Saturday morning in El Paso, Texas. There's increasing evidence that the alleged shooter had an anti-immigrant, white-nationalist motive. Hours later, early Sunday morning, nine people killed, many more wounded in Dayton, Ohio. And this all happened less than a week after yet another deadly shooting in Gilroy, Calif. So, Tam, this morning, President Trump speaks about all of this.
KEITH: Yes. And I think that the major headline from his speech was that he condemned racism and white supremacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart and devours the soul.
KEITH: President Trump was under special pressure, I think, to come out and say these words very clearly without any equivocation because in the past, he has equivocated. In particular, after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when a counterprotester was killed, initially, the president delivered a statement, read from a teleprompter, condemning white supremacists and the KKK. But then at a press conference at Trump Tower, he said that there were very fine people on both sides. And so heading into this, there was some question of what the president would say.
DETROW: Yeah. And as the backdrop to this speech, you know, increasingly, a lot of the Democrats running for president have not been shy to call President Trump a racist, say that he is running a campaign based on dividing the country. But after the motives - the alleged motives - in this alleged manifesto of the El Paso shooter became public - that it was an anti-immigration motive, that that he thought immigrants were invading the country. There has been a lot of fierce criticism saying that the way that President Trump talks about immigrants, the way that he talks about them using that term invading and the way that he really plays up divisiveness in his speeches, especially his campaign rallies, has emboldened white nationalism around the country. A lot of the candidates were saying that. One of the first was Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman who, of course, represented El Paso in Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
BETO O'ROURKE: I think it's really important for us to understand this in a much larger context of what is happening in this country, especially at a time when we have a president who seeks to make us afraid of one another based on our differences, who warned of Mexican immigrants being rapists and criminals, though we know that immigrants in this country commit crimes at a far lower rate. Those hosts on Fox News talk about an invasion coming to our border, politicians who seek to make us afraid of people do not look like the majority in this country - it doesn't offend our sensibilities as a country of immigrants and asylum-seekers. I really believe it is changing our country right now. It is an invitation to hatred - not just to hatred but to violence.
DETROW: That was Beto O'Rourke speaking to NPR's Weekend Edition. Elizabeth Warren made a similar point on MSNBC.
(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)
ELIZABETH WARREN: The president has embraced white nationalists. He has encouraged white nationalists. He is there with white nationalism when white nationalists embrace him and call him their friend. You know, I take them at their word on that.
DETROW: Domenico, what do we make of all this?
MONTANARO: Well, I mean, the thing that, you know, a lot of domestic terrorism experts will talk about is the fact that you have people at the fringes who can take rhetoric in a certain way and interpret it to be something that they, you know, internalize and use. I mean, it reminds me a little bit of the Trump rallies. You know, when you go to the rallies, there's this climate beforehand where people are talking to you. They seem friendly. And then the president gets up there. His rhetoric, the way he talks about it - and it all seems for him to be part of a show. The audience is part of the show. Even the media are, you know, kind of the whipping boy to kind of pile on. And there's very few incidents of violence at these events. But there have been scattered incidents of violence.
And it's one of those things where half the country feels like that kind of rhetoric, that kind of ginning up can potentially make one or two people feel like they're internalizing the words that he's saying, as Tam had referred to, you know, with immigrants being invaders or some other otherism of various groups. And that's where part of the debate is right now in the country and on the presidential campaign trail, as we're hearing.
DETROW: And, Tam, you were just reporting that the Trump campaign has just come out with a list of several instances that the president has condemned racism. You look through the speech today, and he's talking about how there's no place for hatred. How does that square with the record of now 2 1/2-plus years as president that President Trump has when it comes to his public comments, his tweets the way he talks about this stuff?
KEITH: You can go back to the very day that he launched his campaign, when he came down the gilded escalator and referred to immigrants as rapists, and draw a direct line to language that he continues to use. You know, he keeps using this phrase that it's an invasion. And he did so at a rally in Florida a couple of months ago. And a lot of attention is now going to that particular rally because of what happened after the part where he was talking about an invasion. So let's hear the invasion language first.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
TRUMP: That's an invasion. I was badly criticized for using the word invasion. It's an invasion.
KEITH: And so then a little bit later in this rally speech, he is saying, well, but there isn't much we can do about these migrant caravans, which is what he was talking about.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
TRUMP: But how do you stop these people?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Shoot them.
TRUMP: You can't...
KEITH: So somebody right there just shouted, shoot them.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
TRUMP: That's only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff.
DETROW: And the reason we are talking about this today and the reason why many of - critics of President Trump have really repeatedly brought this up in the last few days is that, from the early evidence - and that's important to say - the early evidence, this shooter in El Paso, Texas, had this manifesto of sorts where he talked about his concern about an invasion of Mexicans, an invasion of immigrants. And he seems to have specifically picked this Walmart by the U.S.-Mexico border that had a lot of Latino people in it as the target for the shooting.
MONTANARO: And, obviously, this isn't the first incident of domestic terrorism in the United States while Trump has been president or even before that, obviously. You know, in 2009, you had the Obama administration warn of a rise in domestic terrorism. There was a report that was created by the Department of Homeland Security. Janet Napolitano, then the Homeland Security secretary, brought it up, talked about it. And she faced fierce backlash from Republicans and conservatives and conservative media. And the Obama administration essentially dropped talking about it. But it is something that the Obama Justice Department was working on and had warned about.
DETROW: And, of course, we've talked a lot about - this podcast the last few weeks about the way that, really, when it comes down to it, President Trump will gravitate towards the combative, the tribal view of politics and go on the attack. So that's why it was so interesting to me that that throughout this speech today, he tried to talk about unity and tamping down hate and things like that. Here's one more moment from that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
TRUMP: In the two decades since Columbine, our nation has watched with rising horror and dread as one mass shooting has followed another over and over again, decade after decade. We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless. We can and will stop this evil contagion. In that task, we must honor the sacred memory of those we have lost by acting as one people. Open wounds cannot heal if we are divided. We must seek real, bipartisan solutions. We have to do that in a bipartisan manner that will truly make America safer and better for all.
MONTANARO: You know, it just rings hollow for a lot of Americans when they hear the president in that tone, reading off the teleprompter, talking about this stuff when - how does he reconcile these sort of two Trumps where he has this tone on Twitter or at rallies, like we played earlier, at the Panhandle and other places, and he talks about bipartisanship and legislation when, really, for a lot of this presidency, it's been a partisan push?
DETROW: Yeah. And, of course, the other aspect of all of this is, as he mentioned, two mass shootings, horrific casualties - I mean, we're getting all these terrible details about the people who died, the ways in which they died. And it just happens over and over and over again. There is talk sometimes - not even all the time anymore - about a legislative response, and it never goes anywhere. So we're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we will talk about whether this is a moment like Parkland, where maybe there will be a focus on on legislative responses, or whether it just fades away again.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DETROW: We're back, and we are joined by Ryan Lucas, who covers the Justice Department. Hey, Ryan.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.
DETROW: So we are in that point that often happens after mass shootings like this of, what happens next? Should states pass any new laws? Should Congress pass any new laws? Why do we keep having this conversation? President Trump addressed that a little bit in his speech today, talking about a whole bunch of different things the federal government could do, including doing a better job of flagging people who are at risk before shootings.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: First, we must do a better job of identifying and acting on early warning signs. I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.
DETROW: And, Tam, there was some confusion because the president talked about background checks in a tweet before the speech and then didn't mention them during his speech.
KEITH: Right, which is puzzling, certainly. In a tweet sent this morning, the president said that he thought that there should be strong background checks. And he called for bipartisan legislation to do that. He also called for it to be linked with immigration reform legislation, which is puzzling because if you had to pick two of the most intractable political items of the last decade or more, those would be them. Bipartisan efforts at immigration reform and bipartisan efforts at even just simple things like background checks have failed in Congress again and again. The tweet was one thing, and then it really wasn't reflected in his prepared remarks that he then delivered from a teleprompter, where he really focused more on mental health.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger not the gun.
KEITH: And, in fact, he didn't really talk about any sort of gun control in the sense that Democrats typically talk about it. Instead, he talked about red flag laws.
MONTANARO: Red flag laws are kind of - you know, there's a few different names for them. I mean, in some places, they're extreme risk protection orders. There's about a dozen states, though, with these so-called red flag laws, where if you do something and somebody sees it, then you have to kind of raise your hand - this sort of see something, say something idea about it, whether it's domestic violence issue. Mostly, this has had effects on suicides. It's reduced the number of suicides in places because somebody might say, hey. You know, my uncle said this thing. He has guns. You know, the police can go to court to try to get a protective order to stop him from being able to use that gun and confiscate it, at least in a limited term.
DETROW: But, Tam, you were talking about how gun control is one of those things that just hasn't advanced in Congress. The reason for that is a lot more straightforward than the reason immigration legislation never really moves forward. And it's that the Republican Party just has made it clear that philosophically, they have no interest in dealing with a lot of these gun control measures. The House is now controlled by Democrats and actually passed two background check bills earlier this year. But Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, has made it clear he just has no interest in bringing those bills to a vote in the Senate. And frankly, they would probably fail if they did come to a vote in the Senate, given its current makeup.
KEITH: Yeah. I mean, there were just a handful of Republicans in the House that voted for those House bills. And in the Senate, the last significant effort to do any sort of bipartisan restrictions on guns was a background check bill after the Sandy Hook shooting. It was a bipartisan effort headed by Senators Pat Toomey and Joe Manchin. It failed to overcome a filibuster. And that was the last big try, though Toomey once again has said, hey. Let's try again.
LUCAS: You know, we've seen this pattern again and again emerge from these shootings over the years of - there's talk of actually having some sort of legislative fix, some sort of change to try to address this problem. And we keep on sitting down and having the same conversation and saying, again and again, that nothing actually gets done...
LUCAS: ...In the end.
MONTANARO: Well, I mean - and part of that, though, is Washington-centric, right? I mean, you know, we saw a president of the United States cry in the White House briefing room with President Obama after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. And, you know, nothing was able to get done federally then after that shooting. But after the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, you did see states take the initiative to try to create their own laws to restrict guns and gun availability or having stricter background checks. So we're...
DETROW: Even Florida, which had - was really controlled by Republicans on all levels.
MONTANARO: They had a Republican governor who implemented that who's now a Republican senator - Rick Scott. So you've seen that groundswell sort of change happening outside of Washington. But still, D.C. has been crippled by polarization and interests in the gun lobby and the rest.
DETROW: And that's why, to me, I think one of the most, like, remarkable moments of the Trump presidency was that big meeting that he had with Democrats and Republicans in the Cabinet Room shortly after the Parkland shooting, where he brought the cameras in. And the press just broadcast the whole thing live. And in the meeting, President Trump repeatedly agreed with the Democrats on things like background checks and, at one point said, well, we should just take guns and figure out due process later. The Republicans in the room looked very startled. The meeting ended. Republican leaders had a long talk with the White House, and then the White House basically backed away from everything the president had said in that meeting.
KEITH: The walk back was very fast.
DETROW: And, Ryan, there's one other aspect to all of this. And that's, of course, the investigation itself. We have heard federal law enforcement talk about this as domestic terrorism. I'm talking about the El Paso shooting here not...
DETROW: ...The Dayton shooting. What does that mean in terms of what happens next in the investigation? Does that mean domestic terrorism charges would be brought up?
LUCAS: Well, that's a logical conclusion to come to. But the answer to that is no because there is no domestic terrorism charge in the federal statute. There is a definition for domestic terrorism. And it defines it as activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are violation of criminal laws and are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population. Based on this manifesto that law enforcement officials have said appears to have been written by the suspected gunman, this act appears to be an attempt to do just what this statute says. But, again, there is no domestic terrorism charge. There's been a long-running conversation within law enforcement and federal prosecutors of, perhaps, adding a domestic terrorism charge. And there are a number of reasons that advocates want one added. One issue is resources. If you have a domestic terrorism charge, you can funnel resources towards combating the issue in a more effective way. Two is this idea of education. The American public - when they hear the term terrorism, what do they tend to think of? They tend, generally, to think of stuff like 9/11. They think of Islamic extremist terrorism.
LUCAS: If you have a domestic terrorism charge, it would put the public on alert that there is this broader issue of terrorism in the country that involves domestic terrorism as well.
DETROW: So is that just PR? Is that just in terms of the political implications? - because I feel like, over and over again, there's this conversation of, is this terrorism or not? And I always think - I don't really understand the difference and why it matters when you're talking about the shooting death of 20 or 30 people.
LUCAS: There is the - you could call it PR. You could call it the symbolic way in which we talk about something.
LUCAS: And calling it terrorism as opposed to just murder means something.
DETROW: There's a broader threat out there aside from this person.
LUCAS: A murder can affect a family, perhaps a neighborhood, perhaps a community. Terrorism can affect the broader community. It can affect a state. It can affect a whole nation. And so there's that aspect of it. There's one other thing that I would say about it in a more kind of technical way. The way that people have often been charged in domestic terrorism cases is for, say, weapons or murder. Sometimes, if they get them before the fact, it's a weapons charge or it's on something else. So you're getting people locked up for a much shorter period of time than they would be if you could bring some sort of domestic terrorism charge against them.
MONTANARO: I mean, this may sound not so smart, but there have been people who were connected to ISIS who were charged with material support to a terrorist organization, right? Couldn't they just apply that to somebody who does something within the United States but not necessarily tied to Islamist extremism?
LUCAS: This is where you run into a First Amendment issue - free speech, freedom of assembly. The fact is the foreign terrorist organization - that's a designation that the State Department makes that is related to a foreign terrorist group - and you are then aiding that foreign terrorist group. There is no list of domestic terrorist organizations because freedom of assembly, freedom of speech. And the way that the FBI director talked about it is, we don't investigate ideology. We don't investigate white supremacist ideology. We don't investigate environmental ideology. We investigate violence. That's what we take seriously. That's what he said as FBI director. Now, you can get some pushback on - well, they're investigating, you know, jihadist...
MONTANARO: They're certainly in social media and monitoring all that.
LUCAS: But there has been, historically, a distinction made between those two, rightly or wrongly.
KEITH: Hey, Ryan. I have another question. The FBI put out this statement that says that the attack in El Paso underscores the continued threat posed by domestic violent extremists and perpetrators of hate crimes. What is being done about this?
LUCAS: The FBI says they are taking this issue very seriously. Christopher Wray was grilled about this on the Hill last month. And he said again and again to senators, particularly Democrats who were asking about this - he said, we take this issue seriously. They have created a fusion cell that kind of brings together people from the criminal division and people from the counterterrorism division to try to address this more specifically. They are aware that this is a growing issue politically. They are also aware that numberswise, this is a growing issue for them. Wray said that between October and June - so last October and this June - the FBI made about a hundred arrests in domestic terrorism cases related to domestic terrorism. That's about the same number of arrests, he said, that they have made on the international terrorism question. The majority of the domestic terrorism cases that they have made arrests in are motivated, he said, by some version of white supremacist ideology. So they - this is on their radar.
DETROW: All right. There's going to be a lot more to talk about on this. We'll be talking about it throughout the week. But for now, we're going to end it there. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover politics.
KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.
LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
DETROW: And you can read all the ongoing coverage NPR's doing of both of these shootings at npr.org or listen on your local public radio station. Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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