Donald Trump used a politically delicate visit to Las Vegas in the wake of the deadliest mass shootings of modern times to praise the courage of victims and police on Wednesday, but flatly refused to engage in a wider discussion about gun violence.
Despite a renewal of efforts in Washington to reform the country’s gun laws, the US president declined to answer a question about the country’s problem with gun violence. “We’re not going to talk about that today,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, an attorney for the Las Vegas shooter’s girlfriend, Marilou Danley, said Danley had no knowledge of any plans by him to commit a massacre.
Danley’s lawyer, Matthew Lombard, said she planned to cooperate fully with the investigation of Stephen Paddock.
Lombard added that his client said she was surprised when Paddock, a high-stakes gambler, sent her $100,000. She said she had not been expecting the money and it had made her worried that he was breaking up with her.
Trump and the first lady arrived in the Nevada gambling capital shortly after 9.30am, after Air Force One landed at an airport adjacent to the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, the location from which a gunman rained down bullets on thousands of people at a country music festival on Sunday night.
Speaking at the city’s University Medical Center shortly after meeting injured victims, Trump refused to engage with a question about gun violence in America.
He praised hospital staff, police, and victims – some of whom, he said, were badly wounded only because they returned to the concert venue to help others. He said he had invited victims to the White House, telling them: “If you’re ever in Washington, come on over to the Oval Office.”
He added that his message to victims of the tragedy was: “We are there for you. And they’re there for us.”
He described the shooter, Stephen Paddock, as “a very sick man” and “a very demented person”, but said there was “not yet” information about his motives. “You will know very soon if we find something. We’re looking very, very, hard.”
Paddock, 64, killed 59 people and injured more than 500, using an arsenal of 23 weapons that included semi-automatic assault rifles that appeared to have been been legally modified so that they functioned more like fully automatic machine guns.
“It’s a very sad thing,” Trump told reporters shortly before leaving the White House. “We’re going to pay our respects and to see the police who have done really a fantastic job in a very short time.”
He added: “It’s a very, very sad day for me, personally.”
Trump’s visit to Las Vegas comes at a critical stage for the investigation into the shooting, and the president, before departing from Washington, suggested significant information would be made public imminently.
Law enforcement officials described the shooting as a meticulously planned attack from the 32nd window of a tower in the Mandalay, but they concede they have struggled to ascribe a motive to the killer.
Paddock’s girlfriend, Marilou Danley, a 62-year-old grandmother described as “a person of interest”, arrived back in the US late on Tuesday from the Philippines, where she had been traveling at the time of the attack, to be questioned by the FBI.
Marilou Danley. Photograph: -/AFP/Getty Images
During their visit, the president and his wife drove past the Mandalay in their motorcade before stopping at Las Vegas hospital. They were due to meet “civilian heroes and first responders” later in the day.
The White House’s cautious choreographing of the Las Vegas visit comes after Trump has been repeatedly criticized for making inappropriate or inflammatory comments in the wake of several national tragedies since becoming president.
While on route to Las Vegas, Trump appeared animated by other matters, tweeting: “NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!”
The message appeared to be a reference to an NBC report that the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, recently called the president “a moron” during a cabinet-level meeting – a report that has not been disputed by Tillerson.
Asked about Tillerson’s reported remark during his visit to the hospital, Trump replied: “It was fake news. It was a totally phoney story. It was made up by NBC. They just made it up.”
On Tuesday, during a fraught trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump offended some locals by complaining that relief efforts had put the US budget “a little out of whack”.
The president used clumsy phraseology on Tuesday when, previewing his trip to Las Vegas, he said that what had occurred in the city was “in many ways, a miracle”.
During his attack on Sunday, Paddock planted surveillance cameras outside his hotel room, apparently to look out for a Swat teams approaching in the corridor outside during the attack, and used “bump stocks” to modify semi-automatic rifles so they could fire a rapid, continuous flow of bullets into a crowd of more than 20,000 at the Route 91 Harvest festival.
The result was carnage, with concertgoers fleeing in every direction, unaware of where the shooting was coming from.
Officials have said they know of no religious or political beliefs that could explain Paddock’s shooting spree.
A wealthy, retired accountant and high-stakes gambler, with a pilot’s license and property investments across the US, Paddock lived with Danley in a quiet retirement community in the city of Mesquite, an hour’s drive from Las Vegas.
Law enforcement officials said they hoped their conversations with Danley, which were continuing on Wednesday when Trump arrived in the city, would yield important clues. They have declined to comment on the significance, if any, of a disclosure from the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation that she received a $100,000 wire transfer from Paddock last month.
Danley’s sister, who lives in Queensland, Australia, described Marilou as a “good person” and said she would not have known anything about Paddock’s plot.
Danley arrived in the Philippines on 15 September, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press news agency. She then left for three days and returned again on 22 September, a full week before the attack.
“I know that she don’t know anything as well, like us. She was sent away. She was away so that she will be not there to interfere with what he’s planning,” the sister, whose name was not revealed, speculated to the Seven Network. She said Marilou was “madly in love” with Paddock.
An Australian man who is in a relationship with Danley’s sister came forward Wednesday to give one of the more detailed insights into the killer, outside comments from Paddock’s family, who said they were stunned by his actions.
The man, who declined to give his identity, told the Guardian he came to know Paddock intimately in recent years, staying with him in the Philippines and the US. He described him as a “extremely intelligent, methodical, conservative” individual who was nonetheless “guarded”.
But nothing at the time, including their “robust” discussions about US gun laws, rang alarm bells to suggest that he was capable of “such an inhumane, terrible, vicious act”.
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He said that Paddock had a “gun room” at the home he shared with Danley in a retirement community in Mesquite, and recounted conversations he had with the killer about the second amendment to the US constitution and the right to bear arms.
Those debates have been reignited in Washington, following a familiar pattern after mass shootings in America, in which prominent Democrats call for restrictions on gun ownership and Republicans mostly adhere to the demands of the powerful National Rifle Association.
This week Democratic senators outlined “a menu” of gun control measures they plan to introduce, including efforts to expand background checks and restrict people convicted of domestic violence from obtaining a firearm.
The California senator Dianne Feinstein reintroduced a bill that would prohibit bump stocks, which can currently be purchased over the internet for $99. But Senate Republicans and the White House argue it is too soon for a debate on any new measures that would limit gun violence.
Before departing Las Vegas, Trump held a press conference, reading from pre-prepared remarks at the city’s police department, where he was surrounded by politicians, law enforcement officials and attendees of the concert who had been praised for their courage.
He praised the “incredible character, courage, and resolve” of Nevadans. “In the depths of horror we will always find hope in the men and women who risk their lives for ours. The mass murder that took place in America on Sunday night fills America’s heart with grief. America is truly in a nation in mourning.”
He added: “In the months ahead, we will all have to wrestle with the horror that unfolded this week, but we will struggle through it together.
The Associated Press contributed to this report