It’s been nine days since a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, massacring 11 people. Donald Trump’s public response has gone a long way to reinforce concerns about the president’s capacity for empathy: he criticized the temple’s security measures; he echoed the suspected murderer’s conspiracy theories; he made a visit to the city all about him; and he connected the violence to his campaign agenda.
His private response wasn’t much better. The Washington Post reported overnight on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) and his efforts to help in the aftermath of the mass-shooting. Of particular interest was the phone call the mayor received the day of the massacre.
The three-minute phone call with the president jarred Peduto, 54, the popular second-term Democratic mayor of the Steel City, just as he was trying to get his head around what was happening. After offering thoughts and prayers – and pledging anything Peduto needed, including a direct line to the White House – Trump veered directly into policy, Peduto recalled. The president, Peduto said, insisted on discussing harsher death penalty legislation as a way to prevent such atrocities. Peduto was stunned into silence.
“I’m literally standing two blocks from 11 bodies right now. Really?” Peduto said, noting that he was numb and believed that talking about the death penalty wasn’t “going to bring them back or deter what had just happened…. I ended the conversation pretty quickly after that.”
This version of events is very easy to believe. In a brief Q&A with reporters just a couple of hours after the murders in Pittsburgh, a reporter asked Trump what can be done to address violence like this. “I think one thing we should is we should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty,” the president replied.
It’s not hard to imagine Trump saying something similar to the Pittsburgh mayor as he struggled to find his footing.
It’s also not hard to understand why it wasn’t a constructive topic of conversation.
To be sure, when a president calls a local leader to discuss a tragedy of this magnitude, it’s going to be a difficult conversation. But common sense suggests there’s an obvious course for a president to follow: extend condolences, offer support, and pledge federal assistance.
There’s no reason to initiate a conversation about new legislation on capital punishment – over which a city mayor would have no control.
The missing element, of course, is empathy. And as we’ve discussed on several occasions, it’s a quality missing from Trump’s skill-set.
For example, in June, the president traveled to Texas to extend his support to families who’d lost loved ones in a school shooting. Trump spoke to one grieving mother about his desire to dispatch armed security to schools, and when she explained her opposition to the idea, it didn’t go well. She told the Associated Press that having a conversation with the president “was like talking to a toddler.”
As we discussed at the time, it was a familiar reaction. After the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., for example, Trump called Samantha Fuentes, a student who’d been shot and was left with a piece of shrapnel lodged behind her right eye. “Talking to the president, I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life,” she said after the conversation. “He didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.”
Around the same time, Trump hosted an event at the White House on school shootings, where he clutched talking points that had apparently been written for him. One of them read, “I hear you” – suggesting he needed to be reminded of this.
Before that, Trump reached out to Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, after he was killed in Niger. When their conversation didn’t go well, the president ended up feuding with Ms. Johnson via Twitter.
Last fall, shortly after the massacre in Las Vegas, the Associated Press reported that White House aides felt anxiety over what Trump might say (or tweet) about the mass murders. They were nervous, of course, because of the president’s “troubled track record in such delicate moments.”
After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, he marveled at the size of the “turnout” of people who wanted to see him in Corpus Christi. After initially ignoring Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, the president focused on the island’s debts to Wall Street, feuded with a local mayor, and threw paper towels to locals as if he were shooting free throws.
I’m sure there are examples of Trump comforting people in need during difficult times, but it’s nevertheless difficult to look past the pattern in which the president’s empathy gap has been on display. He routinely struggles in a wide variety of ways, but it appears that asking Trump to play the role of Consoler in Chief is simply unrealistic.
As a candidate, the future president, referring to himself in third person, said empathy would be “one of the strongest things about Trump.”
There’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.