PITTSBURGH — Residents in grief-stricken Pittsburgh are preparing for the first of many funerals Tuesday, as well as a visit from President Trump, who plans to meet with members of the Jewish community here despite the mayor’s request that he postpone the trip until after families bury those killed in Saturday’s synagogue shooting.
The man accused in the attack — the deadliest on Jews in American history, with 11 people killed — made his first court appearance Monday, two days after the massacre. Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver, was using a wheelchair because of injuries he incurred in a gun battle with police at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He allegedly told authorities upon his arrest that he was seeking to kill Jews.
Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell read the charges against him, including obstruction of exercise of religious belief resulting in death. Bowers, dressed in a blue sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, appeared coherent and alert. He said little, answering “yes” when the judge asked whether he had requested a public defender because he could not afford an attorney. He was being held without bail.
It did not appear that Bowers had any friends or family members present at the courthouse. The federal public defender’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
One person who did attend was Jon Pushinsky, 64, a member of one of the congregations that meets at Tree of Life. “It was important to be here to show our congregation remains strong and will stand up, even in the face of evil,” Pushinsky said.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced Monday that Trump and first lady Melania Trump planned to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday to “express the support of the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community.”
Mayor William Peduto (D) told reporters that the president should wait, citing security considerations and sensitivity for those who are suffering.
“If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead,” Peduto said, noting that the city does not have enough public safety officials to provide protection at the funerals while focusing on a presidential visit.
Chuck Diamond, a former Rabbi at Tree of Life, said during an appearance on MSNBC that Trump should wait a week to visit Pittsburgh.
The first funeral — of two brothers, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, who had been going to Tree of Life synagogue since they were young boys — is expected to take place Tuesday. Peduto asked the White House to consider “the will of the families” before deciding to visit and to contact them to see “if they want the president to be here.”
Leaders of the Pittsburgh affiliate of a progressive Jewish organization, Bend the Arc, published an open letter saying that Trump would not be welcome unless he denounced white nationalism and stopped “targeting” minorities in his rhetoric and policies. The letter has been signed by tens of thousands of people nationwide.
“For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement,” the letter says. “You yourself called the murderer evil, but yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.”
The White House noted that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the attack at the synagogue, said he would be honored to meet with any U.S. president. Myers told The Washington Post on Monday that if Trump comes to Pittsburgh, “I welcome him as an American. He is the president.”
“Hate is not political. It is not blue or red, it’s not male or female, it doesn’t know any of those divisions,” Myers said. “The hate rhetoric in our country is a real problem. I’ve seen examples in the last 24 hours. I chose to take the polite and respectful path. . . . Hate is all around us, and people are oblivious to it. The hateful letters and e-mails about the president are just a renewed reminder of how divisive and painful this is.”
White House officials said earlier Monday that they were pushing the president to cancel a potential speech Tuesday on immigration and visit Pittsburgh instead. The president, who has four “Make America Great Again” rallies scheduled this week, is clamoring to get back on the campaign trail, they said.
Critics of Trump have said that his incendiary rhetoric has contributed to a rise in extremism and could be perceived by radicals as a green light for violence. Last week, a South Florida man who has been a fervent Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc, was charged with mailing more than a dozen pipe bombs to people and organizations that Trump has criticized.
But Trump on Monday blamed the news media — which he again described in a tweet as “the true Enemy of the People” — for the divisions in U.S. society. Sanders echoed that during a testy White House news briefing.
“The president is not responsible for these acts,” Sanders said, referring to both the Pittsburgh massacre and the pipe bombs.
“The very first action that the president did was condemn these heinous acts. The very first thing that the media did was condemn the president,” she said. She scolded the White House correspondents: “You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) went on Twitter to express dismay at Trump’s latest attack on the media: “This is, for all practical purposes, a call for more violence against the press. My god....what is happening???”
In Pittsburgh, the community has been trying to heal itself. The city has been the scene of vigils every day.
“We find strength in one another,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) said in an interview. “This gunman went in to try and kill as many Jews as possible. . . . We will come through this. And hopefully this feeling of community that we all share today can be channeled into each of us doing our part of rooting out hate.”
Congregants who were inside the synagogue Saturday were those who often arrived early, many of them elderly people who regularly attend weekly services. The services were about to begin when congregants in a second-floor sanctuary heard loud noises from below that they mistook for falling furniture or perhaps an overturned coat rack.
E. Joseph Charny, 90, said in an interview that as people settled into the room, a man appeared in the doorway and started firing. Charny said that he “looked up and there were all these dead bodies.”
Myers helped clear the front pews, steering congregants toward exits or hiding places; Charny ended up in a closet on the third floor, where he waited out the shooting.
Police arrived and confronted Bowers as he tried to exit the building, and two officers were injured. Authorities said Bowers retreated into the building and upstairs, where he engaged in a gun battle with SWAT officers and ultimately was shot and arrested.
Investigators in the city and beyond have pored over Bowers’s life, examining his actions and online postings leading up to the attack. People who encountered him in person described him as an unremarkable loner who gave no indications of the rage and bigotry he routinely expressed online. He was in the Class of 1990 at Baldwin High School, but he left school in 1989, according to the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. Two classmates told The Washington Post that they didn’t remember him.
“He must have been a real loner or something,” said classmate John Korpiel of Wexford, Pa.
Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has begun the process of seeking the death penalty in the case, a decision that rests with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Speaking after the hearing, Brady told reporters, “Rest assured, we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.”
Investigators searched Bowers’s small apartment just outside Pittsburgh, hoping to learn clues about the origins of his alleged anti-Semitism, and they were scouring his online presence, which included anti-Jewish statements.
Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat representing the Pittsburgh area, said FBI Special Agent in Charge Bob Jones told elected leaders Saturday evening that Bowers possessed 21 firearms. The tally included the semiautomatic assault-style rifle and three handguns found in the synagogue, as well as a shotgun that Doyle said authorities recovered from Bowers’s vehicle. Other weapons were found in his apartment.
Doyle said he was told that Trump would visit a 911 call center Tuesday morning in Pittsburgh. He said it should be up to the synagogue’s leaders to decide if it was appropriate for the president to be involved in memorials for the victims.
“It should be up to the rabbis and the families, whether or not they want to take a visit from the president,” Doyle said. “I don’t think it’s my place to say if it’s appropriate. Tomorrow is going to be a very tough day for Pittsburgh, saying goodbye to the 11 people who were butchered by this individual.”
Berman and Achenbach reported from Washington. Kayla Epstein in Pittsburgh and Alice Crites, Julie Tate, Deanna Paul, Annie Gowen, Avi Selk, Amy B. Wang, Felicia Sonmez, Sari Horwitz and Aaron C. Davis in Washington contributed to this report.