COLUMBUS, OHIO – Allies of President Donald Trump rejected any link between harsh political rhetoric and a rise in violence in the U.S., even as President Barack Obama’s homeland security chief said changing the “toxic” political environment must start at the top.
The comments came after last week’s attempted pipe bombings and the mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday.
Deranged individuals infused with today’s uncivil political discourse think it’s their place to bring about change in society with assault weapons or bombs, and Americans listen to their leaders — including the president, said Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of homeland security.
“Our president has the largest microphone, he has the largest bullhorn,” Johnson said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “This particular president has a particularly large voice and a large microphone, and Americans should demand that their leaders insist on change, a more civil discourse and a more civil environment generally.”
The attack in Pittsburgh during Saturday services left 11 people dead, many of them elderly, in what’s being investigated as a hate crime. On Friday, a Florida man known to have attended Trump campaign events was charged in connection with mailing at least 13 suspected explosive devices that targeted high-profile Democrats, including Obama. That “should be a wake-up call to all Americans to demand change,” Johnson said.
Asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether Trump bears any responsibility for the recent incidents, Kirstjen Nielsen, the current secretary of Homeland Security, said the president “has made it extraordinarily clear that we will never allow political violence to take root in this country.”
Vice President Mike Pence also rejected the notion that confrontational rhetoric by Trump, himself and other Republican leaders has created a spike in political violence.
“People on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences, but I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence,” Pence told NBC News in an in interview on Saturday.
But Matthew Dowd, a Republican consultant who was chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, said the president needs to do more.
Trump is “not responsible” for recent violent acts by white supremacists, but he has “an obligation to try to rid us of much of this tribalism” and “he has not spoken in the right way in the course of this that it has diminished the hate,” Dowd said on ABC.
Former White House aide Anthony Scaramucci said there are problems on both sides of the political aisle but as the leader of the free world, Trump needs to “tone it down.”
“He’s the president of the United States,” Scaramucci said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “He controls the news cycle and the bully pulpit. And he could do it.”
Asked whether Trump’s raucous political rallies sow division in the country, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said “sometimes.”
“I worry about tribal identity politics becoming the new norm of how politics is waged,” Ryan, who’s retiring from Congress, said in a pre-recorded interview that aired on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. He called instead for a return to “inclusive, aspirational politics,” and asked whether Trump practices those politics, said, “Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t.”
Trump condemned “all forms of evil,” including anti-Semitism, in several rounds of comments to reporters and at two events on Saturday.
“We mourn for the unthinkable loss of life that took place today,” the president told a gathering of young farmers in Indianapolis, pledging the full resources of his administration to investigate the crime. “Our nation and the world are shocked.”
Still, Trump, who held a relatively restrained campaign rally in Illinois on Saturday night, was back to mocking political opponents on Twitter Sunday. He said liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, who’s waged a petition drive to impeach the president, is “wacky” and came off as a “crazed & stumbling lunatic” in a televised interview.
“It is unthinkable that in the midst of the horrible political violence our president would resort to name-calling instead of repairing the damage to the fabric of our country,” Steyer said in a tweet in response.
Steyer was among the Democrats who received crude pipe bombs in the mail last week. On CNN he blamed Trump for stoking “routine systematic lawlessness” across the political scene.
In the Jewish community specifically, there was a 34 percent increase in acts of harassment, vandalism and violence in 2016 and that jumped to 57 percent last year — the largest surge of anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. ever, said Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He said he was encouraged Trump said something Saturday, but it’s not enough.
“It isn’t what you say after the tragedy that only matters,” Greenblatt said on ABC. “It’s the environment that you create with your rhetoric.”
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