One prompted a sombre tone, quotation from scripture and prayer for unity. The other brought a barrage of tweets, peppered with capital letters and exclamation marks and bent on divisiveness and blame.
Donald Trump had sharply contrasting responses to the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the terrorist attack in New York that bookended the month of October.
The morning after Stephen Paddock fired hundreds of rifle rounds from his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas, killing 58 people at a country music concert, Trump was at his most presidential, stating from the diplomatic room at the White House: “In moments of tragedy and horror, America comes together as one – and it always has.”
But when it came to solutions, the president offered little more than looking at gun control laws “as time goes by”.
Eight people were killed and 11 wounded when motorist Sayfullo Saipov, 29, originally from Uzbekistan, allegedly ploughed a pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson river in Manhattan on Tuesday, before being shot by a police officer. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in New York since 11 September 2001.
Trump rattled off several tweets in the immediate aftermath and, on Wednesday, went highly personal and political, raising the prospect of sending the suspect to Guantánamo Bay and taking aim at the Democratic Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, and an immigration lottery programme he helped design.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty,” the US president posted at 7.24am ET. “I want merit based.”
Trump was responding to the fact, confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security, that Saipov had entered the US from Uzbekistan under the diversity immigrant visa programme.
Also known as the green card lottery, the state department scheme grants 50,000 visas each year to people from parts of the world with relatively low immigration rates over the previous five years. Schumer was one of its architects in 1990, although he later backed moves to scrap it.
Trump followed up with a reference to the Fox News show Fox and Friends, which he is known to watch regularly and has a reputation for amplifying his views: “We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter). @foxandfriends”.
And in a third tweet he had another dig at Schumer: “‘Senator Chuck Schumer helping to import Europes [sic] problems’ said Col.Tony Shaffer. We will stop this craziness! @foxandfriends”.
A few hours later, making his first televised remarks on the atrocity, Trump’s tone was at first somewhat reminiscent of his post-Las Vegas address. “All of America is praying and grieving for the families who lost their precious loved ones,” he said before a cabinet meeting. “Horrible act. Our hearts break for them and we pledge to renew our resolve in their memory.”
But soon he reverted to the blame game, saying that he would ask Congress to immediately begin work on terminating the immigration programme. “Diversity lottery sounds nice. It’s not nice, it’s not good, it hasn’t been good, we’ve been against it,” he said. “We want a merit-based programme where people come into our country based on merit and we want to get rid of chain migration.” He claimed he was being stopped from doing this by Democrats.
Trump added: “We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through the court for years, at the end they’ll be – who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice. Much quicker and much stronger than we have right now, ’cos what we have now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock and no wonder so much of this stuff takes place, and I think I can speak for plenty of other countries too that are in the same situation.”
The Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have advocated that Saipov be held as an “enemy combatant” and taken to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Asked about this possibility, Trump replied: “I would certainly consider that, yes. Send him to Gitmo. I would certainly consider that, yes.”
Of the 775 detainees who have passed through Guantánamo, none of them have been arrested within the US for acts committed on US mainland soil.
Trump was condemned for seeking to score political points off the tragedy. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, told reporters: “The president’s tweets, I think, were not helpful …
“It was referring back to an immigration policy that dealt with a lottery and blaming people who passed that immigration policy. His tweet wasn’t even accurate as far as I’m concerned: that was a bipartisan law that was passed that had basically no relevance to this situation.”
Cuomo added: “You play into the hands of the terrorist to the extent you disrupt and divide and frighten people in this society and the tone now should be the exact opposite by all officials on all levels.”
His tone was echoed by New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who told the same press conference: “I don’t think anybody should be politicising this tragedy at this moment in time. This should be a unity moment where the focus is on solving the crime and figuring out how we can move forward together, not pointing fingers.”
In 2013, Schumer was among the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators whose plan to overhaul immigration laws included the elimination of the diversity lottery. Another of the eight, the Republican senator Jeff Flake, tweeted on Wednesday: “Actually, the Gang of 8, including @SenSchumer, did away with the Diversity Visa Program as part of broader reforms. I know, I was there.” The bill passed in the Senate but not in the House.
Schumer, an old verbal sparring partner of Trump who has lately attempted to make policy deals with the president, issued a statement in response to the criticism. “President Trump, instead of politicising and dividing America, which he always seems to do at times of national tragedy, should be focusing on the real solution – anti-terrorism funding – which he proposed cutting in his most recent budget,” he said.
Trump’s proposed budget recommended funding of $448m for the Urban Area Security Initiative, which helps cities including New York to prevent, mitigate, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism, a cut of more than 25% from its current $605m. The president is also seeking to eliminate anti-terrorism funding for the non-profit security grant programme, which typically provides anti-terrorism funds to schools, museums, stadiums, religious and community centres. A budget recently passed by the House and Senate is silent on the issue.
The Democratic senator Chris Murphy, an outspoken campaigner for tighter gun controls, noted the paradox of Trump’s responses. “Now I get it,” he tweeted. “If the killer is an immigrant you can talk about policy change, but if he’s natural born, you’re ‘politicizing the tragedy’.”