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How Orlando will alter the presidential race

In an ordinary political year, the horrific massacre in Orlando, Florida, would be a defining moment, offering candidates a chance to elevate their message and present credible plans for reducing the threat of such devastating violence.

In 2016, it's likely to be just another opportunity for people to yell past each other.

Donald Trump, who grabbed the GOP nomination in part by calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States in the wake of the December San Bernardino rampage, used the latest attack as an opportunity to pat himself on the back for "calling" the fact that there would be more acts of domestic Islamic terrorism.

Never mind that following the San Bernardino attacks, the head of the CIA said on national television that similar acts of violence by radicalized Muslims on U.S. soil were essentially inevitable. No serious person denied the problem. Trump's claim of prescience is much like someone claiming credit for predicting the sun would rise.

Investigators work the scene following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters
Investigators work the scene following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016.

And this is Trump's chief political problem. Polls suggest Americans are wary of the administration's approach to combating domestic terror, which includes refusing to use the words "Islamic terrorism" for fear of alienating moderate Muslims in the U.S. and our allies in the Arab world.

But Trump's first instinct is to make events like Orlando all about himself and not the American people. So what could be an opportunity to offer a comprehensive and credible strategy to combat a grave internal threat becomes just another exercise in braggadocio and self-congratulation.

And Trump has a massive hill to climb to convince Americans he is a plausible commander-in-chief. The real estate magnate has double-digit leads over HIllary Clinton on dealing with terrorism. But in the last Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll only 12 percent of Americans said he had the "temperament" to be president.

Events like Orlando offer Trump the opportunity to improve this devastatingly bad number by showing compassion for the victims and their families and demonstrating a steely resolve to execute a new plan to reduce the risk of more Orlando-style attacks. Instead he slaps himself on the back and tweets stuff like this: "I will be interviewed on @foxandfriends at 7:00 a.m. Sadly there is a very bad event to talk about."

A bad event? Really?

Perhaps Trump, or someone in his campaign, realized how silly and self-promotional the tweet sounded because it was deleted not long after it appeared. The next tweet only said "I will be interviewed on the @todayshow at 8:10 a.m." It still started with "I" but at least he adopted a more somber tone. Still, Trump is likely to revert back to the self-aggrandizement because it is who he is. Thus far Trump has not shown himself capable of rising to a new level of seriousness that might elevate him beyond support among white Republicans and angry independents.

Trump is also continuing to press for his ban on Muslims entering the United States as if it would have done anything to stop an attack by an American citizen born in New York. In fact, a compelling case can be made that the kind of religious test Trump wants to apply to entrants to the country is both a constitutionally dubious affront to American values and the perfect recruiting tool for groups like ISIS.


Islamic terrorist organizations want Muslims in the U.S. to feel unwelcomed and targeted by the government. They want no "gray zone" in which nonviolent Muslims can live in peace.

Clinton has also not covered herself in glory on the issue of a radical Islamic threat she won't even call by name. Thus far, Clinton has reiterated the usual talking points about gun control and the need for unity in the face of hate. But she has nothing new to say about how we might better combat domestic radicalization.

Clinton, who served as secretary of state when the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, was overrun by terrorists, killing four American, is vulnerable on the issue. Ordinarily, her campaign would be worried about a strong Republican candidate presenting a compelling alternative case for how to address Americans' fears of more attacks.

But they are instead counting on Trump to make the issue — like he does with everything else — all about Trump. And if he does that, Clinton allies believe, they really don't have much to worry about.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.