For more than an hour Wednesday, President Donald Trump listened quietly to entreaties for action, personal stories of grief and loss, and expressions of raw anger, clutching a white notecard with talking points written on it.
“I hear you,” one said. “What would you most want me to know about your experience?” said another.
Trump’s use of notes, captured by news photographers who covered the extraordinary listening session with parents, students and teachers who lost loved ones in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was not unusual.
But the nature of Trump’s written prompts was atypical. Composed beneath a heading that read “The White House,” they seemed to suggest that the president needed to be reminded to show compassion and understanding to traumatized survivors, an impression Trump has sometimes fed with public reactions to national tragedies that were criticized as callous.
On Wednesday, the president in fact appeared by turns sympathetic, attentive, determined to take action and angry on behalf of his distraught guests. “I just grieve for you,” Trump told the group. “I feel so — it’s just, to me, there could be nothing worse than what you’ve gone through.”
Still, consoler in chief has been a role that the president has been slow and somewhat reluctant to embrace — especially in contrast to his predecessor. Images of Trump hurling rolls of paper towels at hurricane victims in Puerto Rico last year and grinning broadly for photographs with emergency medical workers from Parkland have illustrated the challenge.
President Barack Obama’s staff would often prepare him with names and biographical details of people he would be encountering, news updates on the latest developments on an issue, and facts and figures he might want to cite in discussing it, according to Jen Psaki, his former communications director.
“But there was no scenario where we were suggesting to him, or needing to remind him, how to react to something emotionally, and if we had, he would have looked at us like we were crazy people,” she said.
Trump has said he believes that understanding and channeling the nation’s grief is a strong suit for him as president, assuring a reporter during his campaign that empathy “will be one of the strongest things about Trump.”
But interactions with some of those involved in the Parkland shooting have not been as successful as those during the White House session.
Samantha Fuentes, who was shot in both legs during the Parkland assault, said she had felt no reassurance during a phone call from the president to her hospital room last week.
“He said he heard that I was a big fan of his, and then he said, ‘I’m a big fan of yours too.’ I’m pretty sure he made that up,” she said in an interview after being discharged from the hospital. “Talking to the president, I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life. He didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.”
Fuentes, who was left with a piece of shrapnel lodged behind her right eye, said Trump had called the gunman a “sick puppy” and said “'oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,’ like, seven times.”
The account of the call was reminiscent of the last time Trump drew public scrutiny for his reaction to a tragedy, with his private condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed in an attack in Niger.
In that case, in October, Johnson said she had been deeply offended by Trump’s words and tone, saying that he had not referred to her husband by name, calling him only “your guy,” and had upset her by saying that La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.”
Trump quickly lashed out on Twitter, saying he had spoken respectfully to the widow.
Colleagues said Trump’s notes Wednesday were written by Hope Hicks, his communications director and longtime aide, who had briefed the president along with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, before he attended the session.
The president’s aides had been well aware that he might confront an emotional and potentially volatile situation when he sat down with grief-stricken parents and students, as well as others who had been living with loss for years or even decades. They decided to allow news cameras to capture the entire session anyway.
In private beforehand, Trump met in the Oval Office with Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was one of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week.
“He showed us nothing but love,” Pollack said in an interview. “The guy really cared, you know? He flew us in, he had a bus waiting for us, he made time for us.”
Pollack, who brought his wife, two sons and Meadow’s longtime boyfriend, said Trump signed his son’s white and gold “Make America Great Again” trucker hat and spoke at length with the family. The president insisted that he and his family, who had not planned to attend the listening session, accompany him through the iconic White House colonnade and into the event.
“He took pictures of my daughter that we brought, and he said he was going to look at it every day,” Pollack said.
“He just said, ‘You guys are coming with me,’ and we were just talking about life as we walked,” Pollack said. “He’s a regular guy. I wouldn’t have been there if I didn’t think he cared.”
But another participant in the White House session, Samuel Zeif, an 18-year-old student at Stoneman Douglas High School who survived the shooting and spoke tearfully at the White House on Wednesday of the experience, said Trump had done little to comfort or console him.
He said he had been particularly stung to see pictures of the notecard after it was over.
“Everything I said was directly from the heart, and he had to write down ‘I hear you,'” Zeif said in an interview. “Half the time during that meeting, his arms were crossed — I kept wanting to say, ‘Mr. President, uncross your arms.’ To me, that is the international sign for closemindedness; it’s really just a big ‘no.'”
Zeif, who called for banning assault weapons, said the president had seemed affected by the session, but not moved enough to act.
“He may have heard us, but he’s never going to feel what we feel, because his kids are protected by the people that came to save me and my classmates that day,” Zeif said.