The Memo: Obama throws down challenge to Trump

Former President Obama criticized President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE for ramping up racial tensions on Monday — a rare intervention in political debates from the 44th president.

Now, the question is how Trump will respond.

As of Tuesday evening, Trump had restrained himself, by his combative standards. His only response was a tweeting of comments made by Brian Kilmeade on “Fox & Friends” that suggested an unfair correlation was being drawn between Trump and mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead. 

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Trump is set to visit the two cities on Wednesday.

It would be uncharacteristic of Trump to stay quiet for long given Obama’s criticism and his feelings for his predecessor, with whom he often seems to be in competition.

Trump has frequently criticized Obama and often suggests his predecessor is handled too kindly by the media; just weeks ago, he said the former president should be under investigation for his book deal.

He frequently disparages Obama’s record on foreign policy and the economy, arguing his own success in those areas outshines the former president’s. And he seems irritated with any sense that Obama is more popular than he is.

Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic strategist, asserted that Trump is “very, very jealous of the esteem in which the American people hold Obama, and he feels the need to take cheap shots at him all the time.”

“Of course, that reinforces why everyone likes Obama and doesn’t like him. It’s ridiculous,” the Democrat said.

Any counterblast by Trump to Obama’s Monday statement carries its own risks.

It could look crass in the immediate aftermath of the mass shootings to go after Obama, and the president would risk renewing the debate about his willingness to inflame racial tensions by taking on the nation’s first black president in heated terms.

Before the shootings erupted, Trump had been the subject of criticism for remarks widely seen as racist, attacking four Democratic congresswomen, the city of Baltimore and Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsTurkey sanctions face possible wall in GOP Senate Cher offers to pay legal fees for security guard fired for repeating racial slur Baltimore mayor looks to rename downtown courthouse after Cummings MORE (D-Md.), among others.

Longtime Trump friend and ally Michael Caputo contends that the media has been unfair in its reporting of Trump’s comments.

"The media has routinely mischaracterized the president’s statements, in cahoots with their Democratic counterparts," Caputo insisted. "Normal America knows this. In 'flyover country,' we understand that the media and the Democrats will do and say anything to end this presidency."

Partly as a result, Caputo said the risks of attacking Obama were unlikely to hold Trump back.

“I think we all know what’s next,” Caputo said. “Donald Trump is no shrinking violet. ... As much as one might like him to ignore the former president, I don’t think he is going to do so.”

Obama’s four-paragraph statement on Monday took much more direct aim than usual at Trump, condemning “leaders” who use language “that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.”

The former president also contended that such language “has been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world.”

Some observers note that gun violence is also an issue that has long had an emotional resonance with Obama. 

He has said that the most difficult day of his presidency came in December 2012, when 20 children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. 

Obama became tearful while speaking at the White House in the aftermath of that mass shooting and later described the failure of Congress to enact stricter gun controls as “shameful.”

“There is no surprise that he would come forward on this issue,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

Trump and his allies hotly deny the charge of racism and the suggestion that there can be any link drawn between the president’s rhetoric and actual acts of violence.

Trump denounced white supremacy in remarks from the White House on Monday, while Republican strategist and Trump backer Brad Blakeman told The Hill that there was not a “scintilla” of evidence to connect the president with the events in El Paso.

White House advisers have pointed to tweets sent from an account believed to have been maintained by the suspected Dayton shooter to suggest Trump is facing a double standard. The account had tweeted messages supporting Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Warren, Yang fight over automation divides experts Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' Warren says she will unveil plan to finance 'Medicare for All' Ocasio-Cortez says endorsing Sanders early is 'the most authentic decision' she could make MORE (I-Vt.).

“It’s been confirmed overnight by CNN and others that it looks like this Dayton monster, the shooter in Ohio, had leftist leanings and a Twitter feed that was complimentary of antifa, complimentary of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Am I blaming them for the shooting? Of course not,” White House senior counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayTrump embarks on Twitter spree amid impeachment inquiry, Syria outrage The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Trump offers condolences on frequent foe Cummings: 'Very hard, if not impossible, to replace' MORE said Tuesday.

Warren’s campaign said such efforts were an “attempt to distract” from the “direct line” between Trump’s rhetoric and the El Paso shooting.

Democrats and other critics of Trump also see more evidence that the president’s rhetoric has inspired violence.

Cesar Sayoc, the so-called MAGA bomber who sent pipe bombs to Obama, Trump’s 2016 opponent Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton trolls Trump with mock letter from JFK to Khrushchev Trump-Graham relationship tested by week of public sparring Sunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision MORE, and other Democratic, liberal and media figures last year, was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison. His lawyers described him as “a Donald Trump superfan.”

Reeher said Obama’s attack on Trump resonated more deeply because it was less predictable than those coming from the Democrats running for president.

“Obama can say things that will be heard differently from the Democratic candidates for president,” Reeher said, “He has the role of former president and that de facto gives you a statesmanlike role. And he fills that role in the way he expresses himself.”

Trump allies such as Caputo take a far dimmer view of Obama’s actions and motivations, however.

Caputo alleged that Obama had been “behind the scenes coordinating two years of attacks on the president with his allies.” 

Protestations about a persecuted president cut no ice with Democrats such as Carrick who say Trump’s divisiveness is solely a consequence of his own words and behavior. 

Whether or not he takes another step in that direction with a direct counterattack against Obama, Carrick added, Trump is ill equipped to play the traditional role of president in the wake of national tragedy.

“He undermines his own legitimacy as somebody who is supposed to be a unifying national figure by this relentless polarizing, racist rhetoric,” Carrick asserted. “Now he is supposed to go and represent the unity of the country — and he can’t do it.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.