How Trump turns deadly tragedies into political opportunities

Since Donald Trump took office in January of 2017, it has been a year of disasters. Three massive hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean. Mass shootings at a concert in Las Vegas and a church in Texas were among the deadliest in modern American history. Terrorist attacks around the world killed thousands. School shootings, naval ship crashes, white nationalist violence, wildfires, police killed in the line of duty, and innocent and unarmed people killed by police all cost lives here and abroad in the first year of the presidency. So how did a new president respond? 

With Twitter, Trump’s chosen outlet for his response to the events each day. His Twitter timeline tells the story of the first 12-plus months of the Donald Trump era. As these calamities unfolded — some acts of nature and other acts of humanity — some drew Trump’s attention. Others he ignored totally. Some received a great deal of his immediate attention, ranging as high as 40-plus tweets about Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. Some served as little more than convenient pretext for a one-off tweet to smear critics and promote his Islamophobic and xenophobic worldview. In all, a ThinkProgress review of his feed from his inauguration to February 6, 2018 finds that 244 of his 2,632 tweets and retweets (including a few he later deleted, accessed via trumptwitterarchive.com) were responses of some kind to tragic event that happened on his watch. In more than 75 of those, the president overtly sought to politicize and exploit the tragedy for political gain.

Crediit: Diana Ofosu

Some patterns emerged.

Trump uses tragedy to convince the public to ban Muslims

At least fourteen of the tragedies Trump highlighted through his tweets involved attacks by people apparently acting on behalf of ISIS, the Taliban, or others he termed “Radical Islamic Terrorists.” Incidents in cities like Barcelona, Kabul, London, Paris, and New York were met with at least 62 Trump tweets — 29 of them pushing Trump’s political talking points.

Most were messages tying the attacks to Islam, denouncing “political correctness,” and claiming the attacks were examples of why his Muslim travel ban is necessary.

As a candidate, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going in,” but courts have determined the travel ban is intended to discriminate, rather than make the country safer.

Trump uses tragedy to say immigrants are dangerous

Perhaps an even bigger priority for Trump than his Islamophobic policies are his xenophobic policies, especially his dream of a “big, beautiful wall” at the southern border — a project he insisted over and over would be paid for by Mexico but now seeks $18 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds to built. While candidate Trump talked mostly about ending illegal immigration, President Trump has also proposed to end many of the ways people legally immigrate to the United States.

After the October 31, 2017 truck attack in New York City by an immigrant from Uzbekistan, Trump pounced with a string of anti-immigrant tweets. He used the deaths to call for the elimination of both the diversity lottery and the rules that allow preference to immediate family members of immigrants (which Trump misleadingly dismisses as “chain migration”).

Early Sunday morning, NFL linebacker Edwin Jackson was killed by a drunk driver. Only after police revealed that the driver was an undocumented immigrant — two days later — did Trump tweet out his condolences and spotlight his death as one of “many such preventable tragedies” that would stop if only the Democratic minority in Congress would “get tough on the Border [sic].”

Trump thinks Chicago is a violent wasteland

Perhaps because it was the hometown of his predecessor — or maybe because protesters stopped his 2016 campaign from taking place there — but Trump has repeatedly attempted to portray Chicago as the most violent city imaginable.

Although his inaugural address promised that “American carnage” in violent inner-cities like the Windy City “stops right here and stops right now,” there were still 650 murders — some of them among the 2,785 recorded shooting incidents — there in the first year of Trump’s presidency (less than a 16-percent decline from 2016).

While Trump has done virtually nothing to actually reduce gun violence, he did repeatedly highlight homicides in Chicago and threaten some sort of federal takeover of law enforcement there.

In August, after coming under fire for his response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump retweeted a tweet from a supporter with white nationalist ties, demanding to know why the national media was not paying as much attention to the shootings going on in Chicago over the same weekend.

Trump blames Puerto Rico for a poor hurricane recovery

In September, Hurricane Maria ravaged the Caribbean, causing historic damages to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, American territories that are home to millions of U.S. citizens. More than four months later, huge swaths of Puerto Rico remain without electrical power and running water. The administration’s insufficient response to the storm drew bipartisan criticism and has been labeled “Trump’s Katrina.”

While Trump devoted more tweets (at least 48) to Hurricane Maria than any other single tragedy of his presidency to date, more than a third of them were used to push his political message. Trump quickly pivoted from messages like “we are with you,” to trying to deflect any blame, proclaiming that Puerto Rico was a mess before the storm. Rather than express empathy with Americans killed, or struggling to survive without food or water, much of Trump’s message was, essentially, “it’s their own fault.”

This continued for weeks after the storm hit, including an October claim that “the wonderful people of Puerto Rico, with their unmatched spirit, know how bad things were before the [hurricanes].” 

Trump uses tragedy to malign the media

Another frequent refrain from Trump, especially after he took a pounding for his tone-deaf handling of Puerto Rico and Charlottesville, was to lash out at the media for being unfair to him. Trump, who has frequently used Twitter to attack the “fake news” provided by news outlets other than Fox News, seemed especially irked that these outlets accurately reported on his response to these disasters.

Over and over, he complained of the media’s coverage of Puerto Rico:

He did the same with Charlottesville, calling the American press “dishonest” and “truly bad people”:

In all, at least 13 of Trump’s tweets about Charlottesville and Maria were dedicated to attacks on journalists.

Trump uses tragedy to enthusiastically smears his critics

Trump’s disdain for critics goes beyond just the media. He also repeatedly used tragedies tweeted out criticism of other politicians as part of his response to tragedies.

After the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico criticized the Trump administration’s hurricane response, he went after her personally:

When a fellow Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, criticized his botched Charlottesville response, Trump blasted him as “publicity seeking” and implied it would cost Graham his senate seat:

After a deadly attack in London, Mayor Sadiq Khan — who is Muslim and has previously criticized Trump’s divisive and Islamophobic actions — urged his city not to be alarmed by the heightened presence of police. Trump seized on this, out of context, to accuse Khan of not taking the violent attacks seriously:

Though fact-checkers debunked Trump’s false assertion, he repeated his attack on London’s mayor and threw in a smear of the media for good measure:

Trump also attempted to blame the New York truck attack on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), citing something he heard while watching Fox News:

Even private citizens were not immune. He went after Myeshia Johnson, the grieving widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in a U.S. military operation Niger in October. She had revealed that Trump told her in a condolence call that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” and she said the president struggled to even remember his name. In return, Trump essentially called her a liar on Twitter.

Crediit: Diana Ofosu

Trump thinks law enforcement is great, but pays no attention to police officer-involved shootings

One of the themes of Donald Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech was that he was the candidate who supports law enforcement. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country,” he told the audience.

In August, after white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville turned violent and Heather Heyer was killed by a Nazi sympathizer, Trump responded with a tweet sending “condolences to the family,” but he later expressed sympathies for white nationalists at the event.

But when later that day, two Virginia State Police officers were killed in a helicopter crash while participating in surveillance of the Charlottesville rallies, Trump responded with a retweet of a Secret Service tweet sending “thoughts & prayers” and with a tweet of his own sending “[d]eepest condolences” and praising the officers as “all among the best this nation produces.”

He similarly offered quick condolences after a Colorado sheriff’s deputy was killed in a New Year’s Eve mass shooting, saying, “We love our police and law enforcement – God Bless them all!”

More than a dozen of Trump’s tweets in response to tragedies have highlighted his appreciation for American law enforcement and denouncing “anti-police agitators.”

But the president did not respond at all to the more than 1,000 people fatally shot by police officers since his inauguration — even when those killed were unarmed. For example, when Kansas police shot and killed an unarmed innocent man after a fake 911 call by online gamers, Trump ignored the tragedy and instead tweeted about how unfair it is that Amazon.com is able to use the postal service to ship products at an affordable rate, how Fox & Friends proves that his approval ratings are equal to where Obama’s eight years earlier, and how climate change must be a hoax because it was cold that day

Trump ignored national and international tragedies unless they could score him political points

Those police shootings were not the only tragedies that Trump just simply ignored. A ThinkProgress review of multiple other databases based on publicly available information found dozens of fatal attacks, at home and abroad, that neither fit Trump’s political narrative nor received even a single tweet’s response from the president.

At least eight mass-casualty attacks in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, and Syria were responsible for more than 100 deaths each — mostly of Muslims. Trump met each with Twitter silence.

The Gun Violence Archive documents seven mass shootings since April in the United States that resulted in five or more deaths, but received no Trump response. But Trump did notice after the June attacks on the London Bridge that that particular attack did not involve guns:

And while none has received the attention that Columbine and Sandy Hook received, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund has documented more than 75 school shootings in the United States since Trump took office. Three dozen of these were intentional attacks that resulted in the injury or death of another person. Trump responded to just two of these via Twitter.

Crediit: Diana Ofosu

After a January 2018 school shooting in Kentucky left 18 students injured and two more dead, Trump did not initially let the tragedy distract from his tweets smearing FBI agents and demanding a border wall. Only a day after the Prime Minister of Canada tweeted his condolences did Trump finally follow his lead.

The one other school shooting that seemed to received Trump’s attention was a November shooting at the Rancho Tehama Elementary School in northern California. Trump literally reused his tweet from a different tragedy nine days earlier (in Sutherland Springs, Texas), tweeting “May God be with the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The FBI and Law Enforcement has arrived.”

The next morning, Trump (apparently realizing his error), deleted the tweet — and did not replace it. The shooter, after all, was a white man who should not have had access to a gun, making it incongruent with any of the president’s political messages.