Trump finds his voice in Vegas after stumbling in Puerto Rico
Posted October 4, 2017 10:24 p.m. EDT
LAS VEGAS (CNN) — When President Donald Trump sought to bring comfort to this shell-shocked city Wednesday, the contrast with his paper-towel tossing visit to Puerto Rico Tuesday could not have been more stark.
One was jarring in its display of Trump's defensive and juvenile behavior against a backdrop of death and desperation. The other was measured and presidential.
The President, who arrived at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada trauma center on Wednesday, was gracious and deferential. One nurse recalled how he greeted first responders by gripping them on both arms, leaning in with warmth to tell them how grateful he was.
He and first lady Melania Trump went room to room to talk to each of the 10 patients he visited and their families. He asked for their stories of how they survived as the hail of bullets rained down from the gunman. He wanted to know about their favorite country stars, whether they heard the gunshots, how they escaped the venue, whether they had arrived at the hospital in pickup trucks. He invited them to "drop by" the White House when they were in Washington, one doctor said.
"It was like talking to your next door neighbor," said Dr. John Fildes, who heads UMC's department of surgery and led the Trumps on their tour Wednesday.
The CEO of the hospital, Mason Van Houweling, noted that Trump comforted victims who had lost friends and family members. He met with more than 100 staff members, including an environmental technician who mopped "gallons of blood" from the emergency room floor in the midst of the madness.
"He was a real statesman today," said Van Houweling told CNN in an interview outside the emergency room, adding that the President "gave lots of hugs" and took selfies with anyone who asked. "He spent lots of time with (the victims). He was not rushed by any means."
"I heard a lot of laughing" from the rooms, he said, describing how the President joked with the patients and sought to lift their spirits.
No one really knows exactly what drives the wild swings in Trump's behavior from one day to the next. But Wednesday's visit illustrated his ability for compassion and the ease with which he can slip into the traditional presidential role.
Famously thin-skinned and enraged by criticism, he is at his worst when he is on the defense -- as he was in Puerto Rico.
In that hurricane-ravaged American territory, Trump's public comments centered on his need for adulation -- and his desire to combat the press narrative that it was an island abandoned by the federal government.
There the President insisted that the federal response deserved "an A+" even as the death toll climbed to nearly three-dozen people, and most of the population was still living without electricity or running water. There he tossed paper towels to onlookers as though they were prizes as a sporting event, and held up a can of tuna as if it was a gift he had bestowed on the people there.
He made crass comparisons between the death toll in Puerto Rico and the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina.
The President also placed blame on locals for not working hard enough on behalf of their own recovery, statements that critics seized upon as racially charged against the Hispanic residents of Puerto Rico.
There is no question that Trump felt more comfortable Wednesday in Las Vegas, surrounded by police, doctors and other first responders.
"What I saw today is just an incredible tribute to professionalism, and what they have done is incredible. And you never want to see it again, that I can tell you," Trump said shortly before leaving the hospital.
He said the deaths of the 58 people who perished at the country music festival Sunday night should "inspire all of us to show more love every day for the people who grace our lives."
"In the months ahead, we will all have to wrestle with the horror of what has unfolded this week, but we will struggle through it together, we will endure the pain together, and we will overcome together as Americans," Trump said after recounting the stories of men and women who saved lives on Sunday.
'We are defined by our love'
Speaking with first responders, Trump urged Americas not to "be defined by the evil that threatens us or the violence that incites such terror."
"We are defined by our love, our caring and courage," Trump said. "In the darkest moments, what shines most brightly is the goodness that thrives in the hearts of our people. That goodness is our lighthouse, and our solace is knowledge that the souls of those who passed are now at peace in heaven."
When asked whether he had worked with someone on his speech, his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said "those were the President's remarks."
"He was very personally engaged and committed to doing it, he felt like it was really important," she told reporters on Air Force One.
In interviews, hospital personnel who accompanied Trump on Wednesday said he had met the commander in chief test. Van Houweling said Melania Trump remained at his side throughout the visit and was a "calming presence" to everyone she met.
Barbara Brummel, an oncology nurse coordinator who helped tend to wounded, described the excitement among the patients about meeting the President, and how some of them had dressed up to the best of their ability while wearing hospital gowns.
Brummel, a mother of three and grandmother of two, said she told the first lady she admired her because "it's so hard to be a mom and do the jobs that we do."
"(Melania Trump) said 'Yes, being a mother is one of the most important jobs in the world,' " Brummel recounted.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately reflect Melania Trump told Brummel being a mother is one of the "most important" jobs in the world.