Donald Trump called on Americans to rally together following the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But those who helped George W. Bush unite the country after the Sept. 11 attacks say this president is not up to the task of healing a grieving nation.
“He’s incapable of uniting the country,” said Nicholas Rostow, who served as a national security aide to Bush. “Trump has no notable capacity for empathy. He’s a man without charm. And charm goes a long way.”
While Trump used the right words on Monday when he spoke of faith, family and shared values that bond the nation, Rostow and other senior Bush administration advisors said that no matter how this president says it, he has failed to show any evidence that he has the ability to comfort the way Bush did when he wrapped his arms around America after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington 16 years ago.
“There needs to be an understanding that the president has a unique opportunity, particularly after a tragedy, to summon our best instincts and promote a spirit of empathy and call to service,” said John Bridgeland, who served as director of Bush’s Domestic Policy Council during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
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“Its absence is a kind of very loud, echoing emptiness that is completely inconsistent with presidential leadership throughout our history,” said Bridgeland, now CEO of Civic Enterprises, a social action group. “Not to do this is to miss a big point of leadership. It’s been missing since (Trump) was elected.”
I think there is an opportunity to remind the American people, even some you disagree with, that we can stand united in common purpose.
Matt Schlapp, former Bush White House political director
Trump repeatedly has fallen short of fulfilling one of the primary duties of a modern president — to be the moral and sympathetic voice for a grieving nation — more than once in the first eight months of his term.
After a deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump’s top White House aides spent days trying to clean up his initial, vague response only to see him defiantly blame the unrest on both sides of the conflict — equating the white supremacists on one side with the protesters on the other. And Trump’s attacks on professional football players who take a knee during the National Anthem to draw attention to police treatment of black people marks just the latest example of Trump’s penchant for sowing division.
Matt Schlapp, White House political director during Bush’s first term, said Bush “was really careful to take the heat out of the situation. Obviously President Trump communicates differently.”
But Schlapp said that moments like this, when the country is so extremely polarized, “gives the president a chance to reconnect on a personal level...to show what kind of person you are.”
Trump has a mixed record on that score. His operative mode has always been attack when he’s put on the defensive, even when his targets are sympathetic figures. The list includes a Gold Star family whose son died in Iraq, a disabled journalist and Sen. John McCain’s time as a POW during the Vietnam war. Trump has criticized them all.
The oddity to me is that a president sets a tone for the country. They’re supposed to reflect our highest and best instincts...It’s been missing since (Trump) was elected.
John Bridgeland, former Bush White House Domestic Policy Council director
And while he seems incapable of ignoring a slight, he’s quick to bask in acclaim, real or imagined, and direct any responsibility for bad news to his Oval Office predecessors.
As a presidential candidate, Trump tweeted “appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” after a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 dead in 2016. He blamed previous administrations for allowing the family of the shooter, who was born in the United States, to come to the country in the first place.
Last week, Trump lashed out at the mayor of San Juan for criticizing his administration’s efforts to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, accusing the mayor of “wanting everything to be done for them.” He later referred to her and others as political “ingrates.”
Bridgeland said that a key element of every presidency that is absent from Trump’s is an ability and eagerness to speak to the bedrock principles of American life and to extol and champion the threads that knit the country together.
He recalled that days after 9/11, he was in the Oval office and President Bush said: “Bridge, I want an initiative to foster a culture of service and citizenship and responsibility,” and that he wanted it to last “for decades to come.”
Bridgeland said that Trump's inaugural speech, unlike those of other incoming presidents, never mentioned a call to service to promote the greater good. His proposed budget also eliminates funds for a variety of service programs.
“The oddity to me is that a president sets a tone for the country,” he said. “They’re supposed to reflect our highest and best instincts.”
But Scott Jennings, who worked on Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, said Trump rose to the moment after the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise at a congressional baseball practice earlier this year. And Jennings said the president could do so again.
“He’s gotten it right before,” Jennings said. “From what I’ve seen this morning, he’s off to a strong start in responding, in reacting in way you would expect a president. I’m encouraged that he’s on top of it so far.”
Trump leaves many wondering what to believe about their president’s ability to assume the needed task of comforter-in-chief. He is both a president who reads the correct words of sympathy and healing from prepared remarks and a leader who dismisses convention, extols his own virtues and seems to regale in driving wedges in society instead of seeking the glue that binds the country together.
“There’s a sense right now among a lot of people that we’re divided, that we don’t understand each other, that we’re unraveling,” Jennings said. “In some way, (the shooting and the hurricane) lend themselves to further that worry. As president, you put yourself in a position to allay those fears and remind everybody that when bad things happen, we’re all in this together.”
“That’s (Trump’s) mission,” Jennings said. “That’s where he finds himself today.”