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Members of Maine's Congressional Delegation Reluctant To Link Trump’s Rhetoric With Mass Shootings

John Minchillo
AP Photo
Demonstrators gather to protest the arrival of President Donald Trump outside Miami Valley Hospital after a mass shooting that occurred in the Oregon District early Sunday morning, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Dayton.

In the immediate aftermath of two mass shootings in Ohio and Texas that left at least 31 dead, Maine's four members of Congress were quick to condemn the hatred and bigotry that appears to have motivated the alleged gunmen.

Credit Mark Ralston / NPR
The names of the shooting victims adorn a makeshift memorial at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 6, 2019. The August 3rd shooting left 22 people dead.

But as investigations continue into the two massacres, some members of Maine's delegation have been reluctant to join those connecting President Donald Trump's well-documented record of inflaming racial animus and immigration rhetoric with what authorities believe is the alleged Texas shooter's hatred for Latino migrants.

Soon after the news broke last weekend that a gunman had entered an El Paso Walmart and began shooting people of Latino descent, the focus quickly shifted to President Trump's long history of hostile rhetoric toward immigrants and people of color.

It didn't take long to find recent examples. At campaign rally held in Florida in May, the president asked rhetorically what could be done to stop the influx of migrants at the southern Border. He smiled and joked when a member of the crowd yelled "shoot em.'"

"You can't, that's only in the panhandle you can get away with that statement," Trump responded.

Credit Evan Vucci / AP
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at El Paso International Airport to meet with people affected by the El Paso mass shooting, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in El Paso, Texas

Then there's the president's repeated use of the word "invasion" to describe the situation at the border. It's been deployed repeatedly in at least 2,000 Facebook ads paid for by Trump's re-election campaign, according to an analysis in the New York Times. It's also a word used in the 2,300-word screed that authorities are investigating to help explain the motives of the El Paso shooter.

And for some of the protesters who showed up outside of 2nd District Congressman Jared Golden's Bangor office Wednesday, there is a direct line between what happened in El Paso and the president's animus toward Latino migrants.

Bobbie Goldman was among them.

"He's allowing and putting forth the racism that was more latent," Goldman says.

Goldman and the other half-dozen protesters say they are not satisfied with Golden's response to the shootings, specifically his stance on several gun control measures stalled in Congress.

But some were also unsure whether the first-term Democrat is sufficiently critical of the president's comments toward immigrants and the rise in violence involving white nationalists.

Golden released a statement Monday saying it is undeniable that the El Paso shooting was motivated by hate and bigotry, but missing from that statement is the congressman's views about President Trump's rancor against immigrants.

The answer is still missing. Golden was out of the country and unavailable for an interview, and in response to questions from Maine Public, a spokesperson referred back to the congressman's original statement.

Meanwhile, at a Tuesday event in Portland, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins did address the president's rhetoric, including his repeated use of the word "invasion," which she says is inappropriate.

But, she says: "I do not think that that rhetoric is connected with the terrible mass shootings that we've just experienced in this country that are so horrific."

Collins says there are indications that the shooter had been radicalized by white supremacy well before Trump took office.

And besides, she and other members of the delegation say it's impossible to know right now what other factors may have pushed the shooter to commit what authorities say is an act of domestic terrorism — and possibly a hate crime.

Collins was also asked a broader question: does she believe that the president's rhetoric has emboldened white supremacists?

"I don't. Unfortunately this has been a problem in our country before the president became president," she said.

Collins went on to note the long history of xenophobia and racism in the United States, including in Maine when the Klu Klux Klan once protested Irish and French Catholic people who immigrated here.

But she also acknowledged that the country is experiencing a spike in domestic terrorism involving white supremacists — an increase documented by a recent assessment by the FBI and the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) George Selim, who warned Congress months ago about the growing threat.

"Our ADL data has shown that in the last year, of the 50 murders that were committed at the hands of extremists, all but one were linked to right-wing extremism, and 78 percent were tied to white supremacy, specifically," Selim testified.

The ADL report does not attribute the spike in violence to Trump, but Selim did say leaders at all levels of government need to forcefully denounce white supremacy, something the president has been reluctant to do unequivocally unless he is reading from a teleprompter.

Collins raised concerns about Trump's rhetoric and conduct before he was elected. In a column written for the Washington Post in August of 2016, she essentially declared his divisive conduct unfit for the presidency, an assessment that won her praise from the left and never-Trumpers in the GOP.

Credit Christian Chavez / AP
A funeral wreath with a message that reads in Spanish: "Until always Elsita", is seen at a funeral home in Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019

Now, as she gears up for an expected bruising reelection campaign, Collins has faced intense scrutiny for softening her critiques of a president who is now in total control of a Republican party that continues to spawn Trump imitators, and evict his critics.

Maine’s other U.S. senator, himself a frequent critic of Trump, is also choosing not to draw a straight line between the president's anti-immigrant rhetoric and the atrocities committed by the El Paso shooter.

"This president's whole stock and trade is division and fear. And fear is the first cousin of hate," says independent U.S. Sen. Angus King.

But King says the president didn't invent division and fear, and like Collins, he says it's impossible to know what pushed the El Paso shooter over the edge.

However, King says the president cannot and should not be absolved from the rise of white nationalism.

“He certainly hasn't caused it. But I think you can argue that he's enabled and empowered it just by his rhetoric. It's just hard to deny that," King says.

Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine's more liberal 1st District, says the president's verbal attacks on immigrants and people of color may not have forced the El Paso shooter to pull the trigger, but she says his rhetoric can normalize hate speech and hate crimes.

"It's never acceptable and certainly not from the leader of our country," Pingree says. "I think that Americans — to a one — believe that he should tone down his rhetoric."

And while he's at it, Pingree says, the president should reconstitute the domestic intelligence unit within the Department of Homeland Security that his administration disbanded — a unit that fed information about domestic terrorism and white supremacist groups to local police departments.

Ed Morin contributed to this report.

Originally published 5:30 p.m. July 7, 2019