ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Offering sympathy but no easy answers, President Barack Obama came Thursday to Orlando to try to console those mourning the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Obama’s solemn visit was meant to express solidarity with a grief-stricken community and to show some measure of unity from a political world that has largely used the tragedy to renew its fights over guns and terrorism.
Arriving with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, Obama drove immediately to Amway Center, a stadium just two miles from the scene of the massacre, to meet privately with families of the 49 victims, with survivors and with local law enforcement officials who responded to the shooting. The meetings were expected to last for a couple of hours.
The White House said Obama planned to emphasize his solidarity with Orlando’s gays and lesbians during the visit but planned no major speech or call to action.
The low-profile visit reflected the challenge for the president to find something meaningful to say about an attack that has stoked a wide mix of fears about terrorism, guns and violence against gays. Even as the families of the victims bury their loved ones, it’s unclear what led a 29-year-old Muslim born in New York to open fire in a gay nightclub early Sunday where he may have been a frequent patron.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would deal with the ambiguity in the Florida shooting by focusing on the victims.
“The president’s visit to Orlando has nothing to do with the individual who perpetrated this terrible attack,” Earnest said Wednesday. He said Obama intended to tell residents “that they’re not alone, even as they endure what surely have been several dark nights.”
The White House released few details in advance about Obama’s trip, which aides said was hurriedly arranged in a fraction of the time usually required to plan a presidential trip. But Obama planned to use the visit “to make clear that the country stands with the people of Orlando, stands with the LGBT community in Orlando, as they grieve for their loss,” Earnest said.
The president’s call for rejecting bigotry against gays and lesbians is complicated by the possibility that the gunman, Omar Mateen, may have been wrestling with his own sexuality. The FBI has been looking into reports that Mateen frequented the nightspot and reached out to men on gay dating apps.
Obama intended to focus on making the visit a moment of solidarity.