SAN DIEGO — Five Democratic presidential contenders on Monday huddled with Latino leaders in this southern border town, at first exchanging warm smiles and outpourings of respect and affection.
Their moods, however, quickly turned somber and then angry as they used the gathering to lash out at President Trump for what they called “racist” and “anti-immigrant” rhetoric they say spurred the deadly mass shootings in Ohio and Texas that killed at least 31 over the weekend.
The flood of harsh condemnation from the Democratic quintet, which included former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and former housing secretary Julian Castro, also made it clear that any attempt by Trump to combine gun control and immigration legislation, as he suggested in a tweet Monday morning, would hit a proverbial wall among congressional Democrats.
Biden, the first candidate to speak at Monday’s UnidosUs annual conference, disputed Trump’s emphasis earlier that day on the mental health issues that lead shooters to commit horrific acts of violence.
“These escalating acts are not madness, they are driven by hate – a hatred that we have to confront and rip it out by its roots,” Biden said.
Just moments before, the 2020 front-runner took pride in recalling how he and a fellow Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, worked to ban assault weapons in the 1990s, a law that expired in 2004. He pledged to pass another law that would put the ban back in place but pivoted slightly to argue the reasons behind mass shootings “are deeper than the issue of guns.”
“Hate” and “white nationalism” are on the rise in America, fueled by the Trump administration’s “anti-immigrant” policies, Biden argued.
Echoing the video that launched his campaign, he once again laced into the president for his comments after the violent clashes between white supremacists and opponents in Charlottesville, Va.
“He said what no president has said,” Biden said. “He said there were fine people on both sides. God forgive him.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the policies of this administration amount to nothing more than an onslaught” on American citizens and those seeking to be citizens, he argued.
When it was Sanders turn to address the Latino leaders onstage, he too directly linked Trump’s frequent derogatory comments about some immigrants to the weekend shootings. Most of the people killed at the El Paso Walmart had Latino surnames, and authorities are scrutinizing a racist, anti-immigrant screed the suspect posted online shortly before the attack.
“I say to Donald Trump: Stop your anti-immigrant rhetoric, stop the hatred because … that hatred, that division creates a situation where certain people will do terrible things,” he said.
But it was Harris who held nothing back.
California’s junior senator said Trump is “clearly a racist” who has used his bully pulpit for “beating people down [rather] than lifting people up.”
“We are going to send him back to his reality television show or wherever he came from because he needs to go back,” she remarked.
Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who served in President Obama’s Cabinet and the only Hispanic on the stage, was less pointed against Trump during most of his remarks, defending the roles immigrants have played in American society.
He recalled that his grandmother came to this country as an orphan and worked as a maid, a cook and a babysitter to raise his mother, who in turned raised him with the same work ethic. He said he and his brother, who is a member of Congress, are both products of Texas public schools.
“Our families have fought in wars, they’ve cleaned floors, they’ve picked crops, they have helped build communities – they are part of the great story of this nation,” he said.
While Castro avoided directly blaming Trump for the weekend shootings – he focused on his opposition to the administration’s census and voting rights policies — he ended his remarks by asking the audience members to support him as a way to tell Trump, “Adios!”
Later that day during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, his twin brother, who represents San Antonio, was far more pointed, calling the El Paso shooting “the deadliest attack on the Latino community in the United States.”
“The president blamed the media, the internet, video games. He did not look in the mirror and blame himself,” Rep. Joaquin Castro said.
None of the Democrats at the UnidosUS summit gave Trump credit for calling out the racist motives that inspired the El Paso shooting and for clearly denouncing it as “white supremacy.”
The Democrats also left out any mention of the president’s renewed interest in expanding background checks for gun buyers and his executive action late last year banning the sale and possession of devices known as bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic firearms to simulate automatic weapons.
“We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Likewise for those seriously wounded. We can never forget them, and those many who came before them. Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying the legislation with desperately needed immigration reform.
“We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events,” he added.
Only Klobuchar made any mention of Trump’s newfound support for stronger background checks. The Minnesota Democrat recalled that the president had backed such checks after the Parkland, Fla., shooting in early 2018 only to back away from the idea after a meeting with the National Rifle Association the next day.
After the Parkland massacre, which killed 17 students and school staff members, Klobuchar recalled how she had attended a meeting with Trump where he repeated nine times that wanted to see universal background checks, but “the next day he met with the NRA and he folded,” she noted.
“And I can tell you as your president, I will not fold. I will get it done,” Klobuchar pledged. She didn’t acknowledge that the NRA also opposes the bump stock ban that Trump used his executive power to impose.
There is one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has given Trump credit for trying to revive the background check issue in the wake of this weekend’s tragic shootings.
Manchin, who has crossed the aisle to support some of Trump’s policies in the past, and Pat Toomey, a Republican of Pennsylvania, previously co-sponsored a bill to expand checks to cover sales between private parties on the used gun market. They both said Trump reached out to them Monday to try to jump-start work on the issue.
“This morning we both separately discussed with President Trump our support for passing our bipartisan legislation to strengthen background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, and terrorists while respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding owners and all Americans,” the two said in a statement. “The president showed his willingness to work with us on the issue of strengthening background checks.”
Despite the push for Trump to do something to heal a shaken nation, police officials in California, Ohio and Texas said the attackers in the recent mass shootings all passed background checks in the process of obtaining their firearms.
In the speech just hours after his first morning tweet pressing anew for background checks, Trump didn’t mention that aspect of mass shootings, concentrating instead on mental health issues, red flag laws and violent video games.
Red flag laws allow those who have seen warning signs of mental illness in someone to seek a court order for the police to intervene and confiscate weapons from them.
California already has a red flag law that makes it legal for family members to ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who they believe could pose a threat. Right now, 17 states and the District of Colombia have these types of laws on the books.
It’s unclear if Trump was suggesting Congress pass a federal law or is pushing more states to pass their own versions.
“First, we must do a better job of identifying and acting on warning signs,” Trump said in his remarks Monday morning. “I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, as well as social media companies to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”
He cited the “monster in the Parkland high school,” who he said had “red flags against him, yet nobody took decisive action. Nobody did anything. Why not?”
Trump also laid partial blame for the violence on “gruesome video games” that he said glorify violence and are “now commonplace.”
“It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence,” he said. “We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.”