PITTSBURGH — Even some of President Trump’s critics had to admit his visit Tuesday was respectful.
A solemn tour of Tree of Life synagogue with his family; a quiet conversation with the rabbi who escaped Saturday’s mass shooting there; a private meeting with a widow. Flowers for the dead, a visit to a hospital, and then Trump departed Pittsburgh without a single public statement — let alone one of the bombastic speeches so many had feared he would bring to this city in mourning.
But that was Tuesday. On Wednesday, Trump was back in Washington, back on Twitter, and back to recasting all events in his immediate wake as a victory story for Donald Trump.
“Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh,” Trump wrote, alongside a video montage of his tour set to piano and string music. “The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”
From all appearances, the president and first lady Melania Trump were warmly welcomed by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers — unlike the mayor, the county administrator, the governor, several tens of thousands of people who signed an open letter telling Trump he was “not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism,” and many hundreds of residents who staged a decidedly not-small protest a few blocks from his motorcade.
"This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Ardon Shorr, one of about 100 people who had jammed a street corner several blocks from the synagogue an hour before Trump’s plane landed. “There is a growing trend of white nationalism. And that has been enabled by Trump, who traffics in the kind of conspiracy theories that we know were foremost in the mind of the shooter last Saturday.”
By the time Air Force One arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport, the protest had swelled to about 2,000 people.
The demonstration had been organized at the last minute, as had Trump’s visit: The White House had not announced until late Monday that he would be visiting Pittsburgh — despite a request from the mayor and some Jewish leaders that he not do so until the shooting victims had been interred and mourned.
Trump traveled from the airport toward Pittsburgh’s predominantly Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood with a small entourage, mostly his immediate family and aides.
Of those the White House had invited to join Trump on his tour, many had declined — including the Senate and House Republican majority leaders, their Democratic counterparts, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the family of shooting victim Daniel Stein, which was offended by Trump’s suggestion that the synagogue should have had armed security.
The protest waiting in Squirrel Hill was rather better attended.
“I don’t know what he’s thinking coming to the bluest community of the bluest area of the state,” said Lisa Tamres in the swollen crowd that afternoon. “Why he thought he would be welcome.”
Police cars rolled ahead of the throng of marchers and stopped them a block away from the synagogue. On the other side of the police barricade, Trump and his family lit candles and placed stones and flowers on the memorials for the 11 victims.
The president did not go into the section of the building that police had found strewn with blood and bullet casings three days earlier.
Myers, the Tree of Life rabbi, had declared the previous evening at a vigil for his dead congregants that “words of hate are unwelcome in Pittsburgh.”
Many in Pittsburgh shared the rabbi’s sentiment and extended it to mean Trump was unwelcome in their city. The alleged gunman, after all, had echoed the president’s language about migrant “invaders” on social media hours before the massacre — blaming the invasion on Jews.
But Myers disagreed with his neighbors on the subject of hospitality. “I welcome him as an American. He is the president,” he told The Washington Post before the visit. “I chose to take the polite and respectful path.”
On Tuesday, the rabbi spoke with Trump at some length behind a row of memorials, then shook his hand goodbye.
What they said to each other could not be heard by news cameras in the distance, whose microphones recorded only the occasional shouts of the passing protest.
The protesters symbolically turned their backs toward the president when they approached the synagogue, and a group of them later sat down in the middle of the street, as if to block the path of his departing motorcade.
They sang songs in Hebrew and held up black strips of paper to symbolize lives ripped apart, and chanted.
But it’s likely that Trump was truthful when he tweeted that he never saw the demonstration. Police wouldn’t allow the march to come near the synagogue, and Trump’s motorcade took a different route when it departed for a hospital, where the president visited police officers wounded in the shooting.
Of the small, impromptu crowds Trump would have seen along the way, a few even cheered him.
The protest turned from the synagogue and marched back to where it started. Of the hundreds of people who participated, there were Jews, Muslims, Christians, activists and families.
Whatever Trump saw of it or didn’t, it was not small.