White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced that President Trump will travel to Pittsburgh Tuesday following this weekend’s deadly synagogue shooting. He shouldn’t go. The president should spare us the debate about whether or not he is sufficiently welcome, he should spare us the inevitable debate after the fact about whether his clunky words and overall performance was insulting or just tone deaf, and he should spare us the spectacle of his usual defenders claiming that his performance was perfect in every way.
What happened in Pittsburgh was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in this country’s history. Like 9/11 or even the Challenger explosion, the synagogue shooting is a national tragedy that has produced a moment of pure grief shared by all Americans. The simple truth is that Trump doesn’t have the instincts or the empathy to lead us during this moment. More Americans are likely to groan and shake their heads than to welcome the president’s participation. The building anticipation of his presence and the “hold your breath, anything could happen” reality of Trump’s visit will only add to the nation’s stress and do little to soothe the torment of the victims’ families or assuage the pain of the community in Pittsburgh. To be clear, there is little chance Trump will say and do the right things in Pittsburgh.
Already, Trump has contributed more to the country’s anguish than to its healing by diluting his initially appropriate response to Saturday’s massacre. Instead of maintaining the proper solemnity and dignity required of the occasion, NBC News reports that on Saturday, just hours after the shooting, the president “mused about the state of his hair, took light swipes at two of his favorite Democratic targets and lamented that he likely won’t win the Nobel Peace Prize” in several exchanges with reporters and at a Future Farmers of America conference in Indianapolis. Sigh.
It really is too bad that America doesn’t have a president who can unify the country and, frankly, help us learn at a time like this. The White House is our nation’s focal point, and it is incumbent upon whoever resides there to be able to do the right thing during moments of trial and grief. It’s not too late to reconsider the White House’s plan for the president to travel to Pittsburgh. Trump should send Vice President Pence in his stead so he can pay his respects on behalf of the nation and the Trump administration. A visit from the vice president wouldn’t be the same as a presidential visit, but it would be better than whatever the president does in Pittsburgh and in the hours and days after, as he inevitably becomes defensive and only adds fuel to the fire. The grace, posture and words that are necessary for a somber moment such as this will come more easily to Pence than they would Trump.
I don’t blame Trump for what happened in Pittsburgh, but I do blame him for not being able to conjure the qualities that a president needs right now. If the president travels to Pittsburgh, it is likely that he will only remind everyone of his inadequacies and put his allies on the defensive, trying to explain yet another Trump debacle.