Donald Trump eschewed bluster and offered prayers and condolences. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings asked politicians and others to choose their words carefully. And House Speaker Paul Ryan urged not allowing anger to “send us further into our corners.”
As Americans recoiled in horror from the news that five Dallas police officers had been shot to death by a sniper just days after two African-American men died at the hands of police officers, key political players sought to project a measure of unity and calm, a rare moment in what has been a harshly divisive political season.
The leading presidential candidates postponed campaign events and issued somber statements. President Barack Obama, in Europe, announced he would return to the United States on Sunday, a day early, and travel to Dallas early next week.
But it remained to be seen whether the passions engendered by the volatile mix of guns, race and law enforcement would really ease over what took place in Dallas or were merely put on hold for a day or two.
Black Lives Matter activists condemned the Dallas shootings as the act of a lone gunman, calling it a tragedy for those slain and for “democracy” but saying they would not be silenced. Trump’s Virginia campaign chair blamed Hillary Clinton for the shootings in a Facebook post he later deleted, writing that “liberal politicians who label police as racists” were largely to blame for “encouraging the murder” of the police officers.
Trump himself was more restrained than usual for a candidate who was criticized last month for responding to the gay nightclub shootings in Orlando by noting on Twitter that he’d been congratulated for predicting more terrorist attacks.
Instead, he issued a lengthy statement Friday, calling for “strong leadership, love and compassion.”
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has often sided with police accused of excessive force, and his rallies have been a target of Black Lives Matters activists, whose cause arose in the wake of a series of police shootings of young African-Americans.
But on Friday, Trump described as “senseless, tragic” the deaths this week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the two African-American men killed in questionable police shootings that were highlighted in online videos.
It was Trump’s first comment on the incidents, though he mistakenly referred to them as the “two motorists”; only Castile was shot during a traffic stop.
“Reminds us how much more needs to be done,” he wrote.
Trump didn’t entirely turn over a new leaf, criticizing Clinton and the news media in a single tweet: “Isn’t it sad that on a day of national tragedy Hillary Clinton is answering softball questions about her email lies on @CNN?”
Clinton, who last month postponed her first campaign event with Obama after the Orlando shootings, scrubbed a campaign event with Vice President Joe Biden that was to have been their first together.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who represents a district that includes suburbs west of Dallas, took solace in remarks from Ryan, R-Wis., and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both of whom called for reconciliation.
“It’s clearly aimed at bringing tension down in the House of Representatives and the country writ large,” Burgess said in an interview. The House was roiled last month by Democrats taking over the floor in a “sit-in” demanding gun control measures.
Burgess said police in his district and local activists were asking “if there’s any way to tone down the rhetoric.”
That remained to be seen.
Trump supporter and potential vice presidential pick Newt Gingrich needled Clinton and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for their support of Black Lives Matter, telling Fox News that “all American lives matter of all backgrounds. We ought to challenge the Hillary Clintons and the Bernie Sanderses to say that American lives matter.”
Obama, who had decried the spate of African-American men slain by police just hours before the Dallas shooting, was the target of recrimination, even though he also had mourned the police officers’ deaths, saying there is “no contradiction between us supporting law enforcement . . . and also saying that there are problems across our criminal justice system.”
Critics accused him of prioritizing black communities’ struggles with police over law enforcement agencies’ attempts to keep the peace – and with using the deaths of the Dallas police officers to push for gun control by noting the availability of assault weapons in the U.S.
The “spread of misinformation and constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president, have contributed to the modern-day hostility,” said Rep. Roger Williams, a Texas Republican.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed “people with big mouths,” saving his harshest criticism for the activists who had gathered in Dallas to protest police shootings. They were hypocrites, he told Fox News, for running when the gunman began firing at the police.
“All those protesters last night, they ran the other way, expecting the men and women in blue to turn around and protect them,” he said.
Other Republicans, however, acknowledged the police shootings.
“We should all understand why our fellow Americans in the black community are angry at the images of an African-American man, with no criminal record, who was pulled over for a busted tail light, slumped in his car seat and dying while his 4-year-old daughter watches from the back seat,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Some analysts said they wouldn’t be surprised if the Dallas police shootings failed to bring the two sides together.
“We don’t know what to do because we don’t agree on what the problem is,” said Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida. “For some, it’s aggressive policing and lingering vestiges of racism; for others it’s blacks committing crimes. There’s no consensus.”
Black Lives Matter made a similar point in a statement.
“There are some who would use these events to stifle a movement for change and quicken the demise of a vibrant discourse on the human rights of Black Americans,” the group said in a statement. “Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.”
In Dallas, Police Chief David Brown called for a show of unity for his police force: “We don’t feel much support most days,” Brown said. “Let’s not make today most days.”
Maria Recio contributed to this report.