SHANKSVILLE, Pa. — President Donald Trump marked the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Tuesday by stepping back into the role of consoler-in-chief – but only after spending the morning tweeting as usual.
Before traveling to the Shanksville, Pa., site where United Flight 93 crashed into a field, the president fired off multiple posts accusing his opponents of “failing and lying like CRAZY” and charging the investigative reporter Bob Woodward with acting like a Democratic operative ahead of the midterms. He re-posted tweets proclaiming his innocence in the Russia probe and thanking “God for President Trump.”
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And he wrote a missive crediting his own personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani with leadership in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, a divergence from past presidential messages crediting the heroism of first responders and citizens.
The president’s muted speech at the site of the airline crash 17 years ago belied the conflict-ridden tone of an executive who has struggled with a basic obligation of his office: commemorating the fallen in service of pulling the country together.
“A piece of America’s heart is buried on these grounds,” Trump said, surveying the 1,500-acre national park, now a memorial for the 40 passengers and crew who died. “But in its place has grown a new resolve to live our lives with the same grace and courage as the heroes of Flight 93.”
Trump arrived at the memorial site in Pennsylvania moments after a news photographer snapped a photograph of him giving supporters a celebratory-looking double-fist-pump on the tarmac as he exited Air Force One — an image that quickly went viral.
The contrasting messages continued a pattern for this president, whose attempts to offer unifying messages to a polarized nation have often been laced with elements of discord – and who has positioned himself as a president for the forgotten men and women of the country.
“Thousands of people went to our sites of trauma and helped. They signed up to be in the military. They volunteered to give blood. It was a uniquely American response,” former White House chief of staff Andy Card, who broke the staggering news of the Sept. 11 attacks to then-President George W. Bush, said in an interview. “Now we get to practice our uniquely interesting democratic process. And sometimes it’s in conflict.”
Trump vowed during his campaign that he would be a “great unifier,” and, once he was elected, continued to hold out that promise.
“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” he told television anchors earlier this year. “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do. But I would like to do it without that major event because usually that major event is not a good thing.”
Trump used the first anniversary of the deadly violence and racial strife in Charlottesville, Va., to urge peace and “condemn all types of racism and acts of violence.” But that call came a year after he had said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
In his first State of the Union address in January, Trump challenged Congress to “summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” yet he followed that up with heated rhetoric about immigration-driven gang violence and the scourge of open borders.
In May, the president concluded a Memorial Day tweet with another plug for himself: “Those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud at how well our country is doing today,” he wrote on Twitter, listing the “Best economy in decades, lowest unemployment numbers for Blacks and Hispanics EVER (& women in 18years), rebuilding our Military and so much more. Nice!”
He again drew swift rebuke last month when his Instagram post offering condolences to the family of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain included a picture of Trump – not of the late senator, whose days of services the president was not invited to.
More than anything else, it has been Trump’s inability to quietly absorb incoming slights during times of national tribute that have shaded his tenure going back to his January 2017 speech at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va.
There, Trump gave a swaggering address that ripped the media, bragged about his inaugural crowd size and provided an upbeat assessment of his intellect. “Trust me, I’m like a smart person,” Trump said amid questions he raised before a wall of stars memorializing fallen officers.
“Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me,” Trump added, “but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.”
A former administration official said the CIA address set off a wave inside of second-guessing about where to deploy the president for occasions designed to pay homage to others.
“He’s so self-absorbed that it’s hard for him to understand or mourn other people when all he cares about is himself,” the former White House official said. “What should have been a chance at reflection turned into an airing of grievances. It’s Festivus year-round for Trump.”
Last year, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Shanksville while Trump marked his first Sept. 11 as president with a moment of silence at the White House and a speech at the Pentagon.
President George W. Bush traveled to Pennsylvania for the fifth anniversary, in 2006, then returned with then-Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton on Sept. 10, 2011, for a dedication ceremony marking a decade since terror struck. The next day, Bush and then-President Barack Obama attended the World Trade Center ceremony, where Obama read from Psalm 46 and Bush recited a letter Abraham Lincoln drafted to a woman whose sons perished in the Civil War.
The Sept. 11 attacks helped shape the respective legacies of Obama, who supervised the raid that killed Osama bin Laden after opposing the Iraq War, and Bush, the Republican war-time commander whose bullhorn address at Ground Zero rallied the country after his controversial win over Al Gore.
To Trump, a native New Yorker, the attacks represent something else entirely.
On 9/11, Trump in an phone interview with New York’s WWOR-TV, stated he was the owner of the tallest building in the city shortly after the towers fell. He also claimed without evidence that he lost “hundreds of friends” in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. And Trump falsely asserted that he watched “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” in Jersey City, New Jersey, as the World Trade Center came tumbling down.
“It was on television,” Trump said when challenged during the 2016 campaign. “I saw it.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Current and former Trump administration officials familiar with the planning say the president’s somber treatment of the 9/11 anniversary demonstrates his sense of the moment along with his compassion for the families of victims.
“He handles them with the proper focus and reverence. At the end of the day, I just don’t think this guy can catch a break,” said a second former administration official.
Trump was joined on Tuesday by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, Pennsylvania Reps. Lou Barletta, Keith Rothfus and Bill Shuster; and Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93.
Bradley Blakeman, a deputy assistant Bush during the time of the 9/11 attacks, said Trump’s approach reflects, but might not cause, the nation’s deepening divisions.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily [Trump’s] fault,” said Blakeman, who lost his first-responder nephew to the attacks to the World Trade Center. “We have to realize that sometimes the rhetoric gets ahead of us.”