In visit to Dayton, Trump finds a victim — himself

Analysis: The president threatened to overshadow his role of consoler-in-chief with a self-soothing Twitter war.

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By Jonathan Allen

President Donald Trump emerged from a Dayton hospital on Wednesday grieving — for himself.

After visiting with survivors of this weekend's shooting massacre in the mid-size western Ohio city, Trump took to Twitter to rage at Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. He was furious about a press conference in which Brown said some of the hospital staff had "showed respect for the office" even after having indicated privately they were "not great admirers" of the president.

It was an elbow to the ribs, not a haymaker. But it was also the kind of slight — perceived or real — that made the leader of the free world act like he was the real victim. Predictably, he just couldn't let it go.

In the time it took to hit "send," the president threatened to overshadow what should have been the easiest of nonpartisan political victories for himself: a day of consoling shooting victims in Dayton and El Paso, Texas.

Instead, Trump's Wednesday played like the lyrics to a bad country song: He got in a brawl between trips to the hospitals.

"It was a warm & wonderful visit," Trump tweeted. "Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love. Then I saw failed Presidential Candidate (0%) Sherrod Brown & Mayor Whaley totally ... misrepresenting what took place inside of the hospital. Their news conference after I left for El Paso was a fraud. It bore no resemblance to what took place with those incredible people that I was so lucky to meet and spend time with. They were all amazing!"

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The White House had set up the moment perfectly: Trump came in, the press did not. On his way out of town, the president and his aides distributed pictures and video. There was a good chance even critics would have to admit he looked "presidential."

Then Trump soothed himself with the Twitter war.

"Landing Air Force One in a grief-stricken community to provide comfort, kick-start the healing process and show unity is an American tradition," said Republican donor Dan Eberhart. "If the result is leaving behind a smoldering Twitter war, America might have been better off with an aborted landing."

White House Communications Director Stephanie Grisham said Brown and Whaley had overplayed the degree to which they had discussed gun control with Trump while he was at the hospital, and assistant to the president Dan Scavino accused the Ohio Democrats of "LYING & completely mischaracterizing what took place," calling them "disgraceful politicians, doing nothing but politicizing a mass shooting, at every turn they can."

Later, Trump used his stop in El Paso to make the same complaints — this time, after a visit with first responders to the shooting there.

"I had it with Sherrod Brown. He and the mayor, Nan Whaley" the president told reporters there for the event, complaining of the Dayton hospital tour that he had "put them in, at their request" but then "I get on Air Force One, where they do have a lot of televisions. I turn on the television and there they are ... "

"They’re very dishonest people," he said.

Few would be surprised if Brown, one of the smartest and savviest Democrats in the Senate, knew he was baiting the tweet-happy president into going into full fight mode all along. Whether he was politicizing a shooting or trying to get the president to focus on gun violence — rather than an election-season photo-op — is probably a matter of partisan-tinted glasses.

Brown didn't hesitate to release a statement in response to Trump's tweet that shifted attention back toward his constituents and ensured the fight narrative would live on for a least a little while longer.

"I've said before that Donald Trump is a bully and bullies are cowards," he said. "I don't care what he says about me. But the people of Dayton deserve a president more focused on protecting them from gun violence than protecting his own ego."

Brown surely understands the asymmetry of the calendar. Trump is up for re-election in 2020; Brown is up for re-election in 2024.

And though Trump was wrong to say Brown ran for president, the senator had thought about it. He may regret not having gotten in the mix after having deferred to former Vice President Joe Biden. But as is often the case with Trump, his sparring partner was essentially a footnote in the story.

So, on this day, were the actual victims of the shooters in Dayton and El Paso.

Perhaps Brown and Whaley bear some of the blame for that. But their microphones aren't nearly the size of Trump's megaphone, and he could easily have ignored what they said; surely, their remarks would have gotten little national coverage without his tweet.

Instead, after calling for national unity, denouncing racism and declaring himself open to bipartisan solutions to mass shootings, the president brought the conversation back to himself.

He saw an opportunity to cast himself as the victim — and he took it.