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Trump faces first big domestic moment

Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty

President Donald Trump speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House about the shooting in Alexandria, Va., where House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others were shot during a congressional baseball practice. | Getty

All sides are closely watching his temperament in a time of crisis.


President Donald Trump’s first domestic mega-moment has arrived, and his measured reaction to the unexpected tragedy is being praised by all sides as they gauge his temperament in a time of crisis.

Trump touched on all the key notes in the immediate hours after Wednesday’s shooting at a congressional GOP baseball practice that sent five people to the hospital, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

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His first remarks: A statement saying he and Vice President Mike Pence were “deeply saddened” by the shooting and a tweet calling Scalise a “true friend and patriot.”

Then, just before noon, the president embraced the role of sympathizer-in-chief, delivering a four-plus minute speech in the White House Diplomatic Room revealing Scalise and two Capitol Police officers were in stable condition and confirming the alleged gunman had died following the incident.

In other large-scale moments since arriving on the international stage, Trump sparked controversy by referring to hot-button policy points, attacking his critics and getting ahead of confirmed law enforcement reports. All that was gone in his nationally-televised remarks.

“We may have our differences, but we do well, in times like these, to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because, above all, they love our country,” Trump said near the end of his remarks.

“We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans, that our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace, and that we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” the president added.

Earlier this month, Trump sparked an international uproar when he touted his controversial travel ban following a terrorist attack in London and also mischaracterized the city mayor’s position reassuring the public in its aftermath. During the heat of the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton criticized Trump after the Republican declared a bomb had detonated in New York before the local authorities had made that announcement.

Trump also drew criticism last June when he issued a seven-paragraph statement in response to the mass shooting at a night club in Orlando, criticizing President Barack Obama for not saying the words “radical Islam” during the shooting and urging him to “step down” from office because of the omission.

A White House official said while prepping for Wednesday’s speech, Trump was cognizant of the importance of his demeanor. “He wanted to hit the right tone. Moments like this give the president an opportunity to rise above politics and strike a certain chord that captures the sentiment of the nation, that’s unifying and that’s what he wanted to do.”

Trump’s softer and more tactful approach earned him praise from an unlikely source: Democrats.

“It’s looks like Trump and his team took this shooting seriously and acted accordingly. His statement was measured and respectful and hit all the right notes when he issued a call for unity,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic spokesman who worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Added a former senior Obama White House aide: “I think he sufficiently played the part.”

Republicans also applauded Trump for his immediate response.

“I think he set the right tone and message,” said former George W. Bush White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “This is a time to set aside politics and for all of us to come together in support of those who were injured in this tragic shooting. The president has an important role at times like this to be the comforter-in-chief for the nation.”

“Temperate, compassionate, and thoughtful — the president’s remarks met the test of the moment,” said Michael Steel, who served as a spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner.

One longtime Trump adviser said the president is more astute at “striking the right tone when he needs to do so.” Over the years, this person said, Trump would make gossipy or controversial remarks to a TV network or on Twitter, minutes before striking a grim, “tough-man” pose and doing business.

This person referenced Trump’s speech earlier this year to Congress and the “somber” remarks he gave after he ordered 59 missiles into a Syrian air field. “He can play the role of the sturdy commander-in-chief,” this person said.

“It’s not like he acts like his Twitter feed all the time.”

Beyond the initial White House statement and tweet, Trump stayed out of the spotlight Wednesday morning as local and federal law enforcement pieced together the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. Law enforcement sources named the suspected shooter about four hours after the incident as James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Those reports identified him as a supporter of Bernie Sanders, and his apparent social media accounts included anti-Trump posts. Sanders, in a statement, said he was “sickened by this despicable act” and condemned the shooting by “someone who apparently volunteered on my presidential campaign.”

The White House canceled Trump’s speech at the Labor Department that was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

According to the White House, Trump has spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Scalise’s wife and chief of staff and the Capitol Police chief. Pence has also spoken to Ryan, as well as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Texas GOP Rep. Joe Barton, Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake and a staff member who coaches the Republican baseball team.

While the president’s televised response Wednesday drew praise, amid the initial presidential silence several Trump surrogates made charged public statements and even ascribed a motive to the shooting.

The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., issued a one-word post on Twitter — “This” — in sharing a tweet by conservative commentator Harlan Hill, who wrote: “Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President.” The tweet was an apparent reference to a current Central Park production of “Julius Caesar” — who in the play is made to look like the president.

White House adviser Kellyanne Conway shared a post by a local South Carolina television reporter quoting South Carolina GOP Rep. Jeff Duncan, who said the shooter asked, “Is this a team of Republicans or Democrats practicing?”

Jeff Flake is pictured. | AP Photo

“#breakingnews.” Conway wrote.

New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins also placed blame on Democrats, saying in an interview with WBEN radio they need to “tone down” their rhetoric.

“I can only hope that Democrats tone down the rhetoric,” Collins said. “The finger-pointing, the angst, the anger directed at Donald Trump and his supporters … some people react to those things.”

Collins referenced a “die-in” protest that happened at his office several weeks ago regarding Obamacare.

“Let’s hope we can disagree on a more polite, conversational basis and not do things like they did at my office a couple weeks ago. It’s gone too far,” Collins said.

Several former Democratic White House aides in the hours after the shooting said they hoped Trump would avoid politics in his first major domestic shooting incident.

“The tone and the words coming out of the White House matter the most,” said the same former senior Obama White House official who later praised the president’s in-person remarks. “There may be a lot of breathless speculation in the press and an instinct to react strongly, but the sweet spot is typically one of respect, vigilance, and considered thoughtfulness.”

“In these moments the public looks to the president to bring some rationality to what we all have difficulty rationalizing,” added a former Clinton White House aide. “It’s a time to be the healer-in-chief, not the tweeter-in-chief.”

Tara Palmeri and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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