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Where some see tragedy in toxic politics, Trump sees opportunity

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
President Donald Trump addresses a "Make America Great Again" rally on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Tragedy and terror have dominated the last 72 hours in American politics. On Friday, authorities charged Caesar Sayoc of sending more than a dozen pipe bomb packages targeted at prominent Democrats. On Saturday, an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

And both appear to be products of our toxic political environment. Sayoc was a Trump fan who plastered his white van with Trump and “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia. The accused shooter in Pittsburg posted conspiracy theories and messages about the migrant caravan walking to the U.S.-Mexico border.

But there is a fundamental divide about our current politics — the overheated and demeaning rhetoric, the inability to compromise, partisanship all the time. While most politicians, Democrats and Republicans, see this as a problem, President Trump sees it as an opportunity. Something to exploit. Something to help turn out his voters.

Consider Trump’s rally in Illinois on Saturday just hours after the shooting in Pittsburgh. The president first addressed the tragedy and condemned the killings. “This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It’s an assault on humanity. It will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism,” he said.

But then he returned his attention to his familiar targets. On the caravan: “Republicans want no crime, and no caravans, right?... This will be election of caravans, Kavanaugh, law and order and common sense.”

On Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters: “Now I did a little tiny bit of research and Mike's opponent, Brendan Kelly, is a vote for Nancy Pelosi, and of course, Maxine Waters, and their job-killing agenda.”

On Elizabeth Warren: “We can’t use Pocahontas anymore, she’s got no Indian blood!” he said. “I have more than she does, and I have none. So I can’t call her Pocahontas anymore, but I think I will anyway, do you mind?”

On his critics and opponents: “You have the haters and they continue to hate. These are foolish and very stupid people. Very stupid.”

John Cohen, counter-terrorism expert at Rutgers University, told NPR this morning that this kind of political rhetoric is dangerous. “Our political rhetoric has become much more demonizing. Your opponent isn’t just somebody you disagree with; it is somebody who is corrupt, it is evil. Problems such as immigration are not simply problems of resources and problems of policy; but the people who are coming here are treated as criminals.”

Trump tweeted last night and this morning that it was unfair to blame him for the pipe bomb scare and the shooting in Pittsburgh. “The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country. Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!”

But how can the president participate in finding a solution to the division and hatred when he doesn’t see them as problems — but instead conditions to exploit?

And while the president views the criticism of his leadership as an opportunity to showcase himself as a victim to fire up his base, the silence of the rest of the GOP is what’s so loud this time.

Compare this moment with the aftermath of Charlottesville. There haven’t been any Republicans who have distanced themselves from Trump. It shows just how much of the GOP’s elected leadership fears the divisive tone Trump has set is actually the KEY to stoking the base for the election.

Let that sink in.

Will the last 72 hours of news be the final issue-events of the 2018 campaign?

With eight days to go until the 2018 midterms, it is very possible that the pipe bomb scare and shootings in Pittsburgh are the final issue-events of this campaign season. Of course, there’s still plenty of time for another event or story. But with eight days left…

Trump, GOP defiant that incendiary rhetoric didn’t cause the recent violence

The Washington Post: “President Trump and his Republican allies remained defiant Sunday amid allegations from critics that Trump’s incendiary attacks on political rivals and racially charged rhetoric on the campaign trail bear some culpability for the climate surrounding a spate of violence in the United States.”

More: “Trump, who has faced calls to tone down his public statements, signaled that he would do no such thing — berating billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer, a target of a mail bomb sent by a Trump supporter, as a ‘crazed & stumbling lunatic’ on Twitter, after Steyer said on CNN that Trump and the Republican Party have created an atmosphere of ‘political violence.’”

Vice President Mike Pence told NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard this when asked about Trump’s language: "Look, everyone has their own style, and frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language..."

Trump “reads the dutiful words of unity and grief … that aides put in front of him, but he refuses to stick to the script”

The New York Times: “The president has made clear he does not see national harmony as his mission. He mocks the notion of being ‘presidential,’ and the crowds at his rallies egg him on, eager for him to ‘tone it up’ rather than ‘tone it down,’ as he puts it. He reads the dutiful words of unity and grief and determination that aides put in front of him, but he refuses to stick to the script. His people want a fighter, in his view, and he plans to give it to them. If the mandarins of Washington and the cable channels tut-tut over his language, it is because they are out to get him.”