(CN) – President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden lay wreaths at a makeshift memorial to the Pulse nightclub shooting victims in downtown Orlando Thursday as they sought to bring some measure of comfort to the survivors and the families of the slain.
But even as the two walked slowly up to a sea of flowers, signs and American flags under a rainy Florida sky, a firestorm broke out in Washington after GOP Sen. John McCain said the president is “directly responsible” for the mass murder.
“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaida went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq,” a visibly angry McCain said during a Senate debate on a spending bill.
Later, after Senate Democrats pounced on his comments, McCain issued a written statement walking back his words and saying that he “misspoke.”
“I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself,” McCain’s statement said.
The fracas in Washington was a marked contrast to the somber scene the president and vice president encountered in Orlando.
With the vice president standing at his side at the memorial, which is located at the Phillips Center in Orlando, adjacent to city hall, the president acknowledged that the city had been “shaken by an evil, hateful act” but in its aftermath “we are reminded of what is good. That there is compassion, empathy and decency, and most of all, there is love.”
As for the families, the president said “their grief is beyond description.”
He said he and the vice president told them, “Our hearts are broken, too. We stand with you.”
President Obama vowed to destroy the Islamic State group, but also said the nation needs to address gun violence as well.
“It’s going to take more than our military,” he said. “Our politics have conspired to make it as easy as possible for a terrorist … to buy extraordinary powerful weapons and do so legally.”
He said he held grieving parents in Orlando, and “they asked, ‘Why does this keep happening?”
“They don’t care about politics. Neither do I. This debate needs to change,” he said.
“Those who defend the easy accessibility of assault weapons should meet these families,” the president said.
“I truly hope that senators rise to the moment and do the right thing,” he said. “We can stop some tragedies. We can save some lives. If we don’t act, we will keep seeing more massacres like this.”
“It’s a good time for us to reflect on how we treat each other. We have to end discrimination and violence against our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community,” the president added. “They are our family. They’re part of the American family.”
The White House said the president and vice president also met with the owners and staff of the Pulse nightclub who were working when the attack occurred. Two employees were killed in the attack.
They also met with local law enforcement officials to thank them for their work in responding to the attack.
“We also owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all the doctors, all the nurses who have worked day and night to treat the injured, save lives and prevent even more anguish,” the president said. “As one of the doctors here said, ‘after the worst of humanity reared its evil head … the best of humanity came roaring back.'”
“The nation was inspired by the courage of those who risked their lives to save others in the attack,” the president said. “We’re all going to have to work together, at every level of government, across political lines, to stop killers who want to terrorize.”
Shortly after the president visit, the first of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen’s victims was laid to rest at Osceola Memory Gardens Cemetery in Kissimmee, Florida.
Kimberly “KJ” Morris, 37, had only recently moved to the Orlando area. At the time of her death she was working as a bouncer at the Pulse nightclub.
Earlier today, the Orlando medical examiner said that he did not believe the 49 people who died in the nightclub shooting suffered for any length of time after being gunned down.
Dr. Joshua Stephany said Thursday that medical examiners determine suffering by how much a victim moves after being shot.
He says didn’t see evidence that the victims had moved at all.
He says it looked like time had stopped in the club following the massacre.
Drinks looked like they had just been poured, checks looked like they were about to be paid, TVs were on in the background, food was half-eaten and fans were swirling.
Stephany described the scene as surreal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
President Barack Obama hugs Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs upon the president’s arrival at Orlando International Airport, Thursday, June 16, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
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