Trump did not speak publicly during his brief trip, instead quietly paying tribute at Tree of Life synagogue by laying flowers for the 11 victims and visiting a hospital to see officers who were wounded in Saturday’s shooting. But Trump’s trip to the area so soon after the attack tore open political tensions in the largely Democratic city, as residents angered by Trump’s arrival protested even as the first couple tried to keep a low profile during the solemn afternoon visit.
“The sense in the community is that they didn’t think this was a time for a political photo shoot,” said Rep. Mike Doyle (D), whose congressional district covers the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the synagogue is located. “There are strong feelings in the community about him and the divisive nature of his rhetoric.”
Trump has faced charges in recent days that his harsh political tone and effort to stoke public fears about immigrants has fomented a rising right-wing extremism embraced by the man charged in the synagogue shooting and by the suspect arrested last week after a series of bombs were mailed to prominent critics of the president. Trump has pushed back, saying the media is responsible for the growing tensions across the country.
As the president touched down in southwestern Pennsylvania on Tuesday, almost 2,000 demonstrators assembled not far from where some of the shooting’s victims had been buried that day. The relatives of at least one victim declined to meet with Trump, pointing to his “inappropriate” remarks immediately after the shooting, when the president suggested the shooting could have been avoided if the synagogue had had an armed guard.
City officials said they were concerned about protests, which occurred on the same day as funerals for some of the victims, and were not involved in planning the visit — learning about it only when White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced it Monday.
Justin Gargis, 37, prays at a memorial in front of Tree of Life synagogue, one week after the mass shooting in Pittsburgh. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
The scene following the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
The White House also declined to invite two Democratic officials who represent the area — Doyle and Sen. Robert J. Casey Jr.
“We received no call or any kind of correspondence,” Doyle said.
A spokesman for the city’s Democratic mayor, Bill Peduto, said he was invited to appear with the president but declined. Peduto had urged Trump not to visit Pittsburgh until after the funerals for the victims, saying, “all attention [Tuesday] should be on the victims.”
The family of one of those victims — Daniel Stein, 71 — declined a visit with Trump in part because of Trump’s comments about having armed guards.
“Everybody feels that they were inappropriate,” said Stephen Halle, Stein’s nephew. “He was blaming the community.”
The White House said Trump spent about an hour Tuesday with the widow of Richard Gottfried, one of the 11 victims.
“She said that she wanted to meet the president to let him know that people wanted him there,” Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One. Gottfried, 65, and his wife, Peg Durachko, had just celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary and were planning to retire soon.
Some residents said they welcomed the president even if it did anger some of their neighbors.
“I think it’s great he took the time out of his day to give comfort and peace to the families who are suffering,” said Sandy DeFrancesco, standing outside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital, where Trump visited four wounded police officers as well as their family and friends.
“He’s our president,” she said. “He deserves the respect other presidents got.”
Trump tweeted a video Wednesday showing part of his visit. In the tweet, Trump said he and the first lady “were treated very nicely” during the visit “on a very sad & solemn day.” He also dismissed the large demonstration against him as a “small protest” and complained that media coverage was “Disgraceful!” without elaborating.
Sanders said Trump had worked with synagogue leaders to plan the trip.
“He was also asked to come by some,” she told reporters. “Look, the president wanted to show his respect on behalf of the entire country, and to represent the country in this moment and be there to show our support.”
Trump arrived shortly before 4 p.m., greeted by two people at Pittsburgh International Airport: Pennsylvania Air National Guard Col. Mark Goodwill and his wife, Michele. Traveling with Trump were first lady Melania Trump; daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, senior White House advisers who are Jewish; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Chief of Staff John F. Kelly; and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Inside the synagogue, Trump and his wife lit candles in honor of each of the 11 victims — but did not enter the crime scene area, according to the White House. The first couple also placed a white flower and a small stone on stars outside the synagogue that had been erected in memory of the victims — a somber moment punctuated by occasional shouts from protesters.
Later, Trump and his family headed to the medical center to visit the wounded officers.
When the White House advance team left for Pittsburgh on Monday night, there was little clear plan for Trump’s schedule Tuesday, and it was tasked with organizing events before he landed. City and local officials were not given any advance notice of the White House’s plans and were concerned that the visit could hinder the travel of grieving families.
Still, some of Trump’s closest congressional allies defended the president’s decision to travel to Pittsburgh — a trip that comes ahead of a spate of campaign rallies that puts the president on the road through Election Day. And White House officials said it would be a trip that was seen by much of the country as respectful, even if dismissed among many in Washington.
“I’m glad that the president is going down,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Tuesday on Fox News. “I think it’s an important display that he goes down there to show that we’re all Americans in these kind of tragedies, and we’re going to stand with each other.”
The White House had asked the top four congressional leaders — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — to accompany Trump to Pittsburgh, but all declined, according to three officials familiar with the invitations.
An aide to McConnell, who on Monday denounced the shootings as “hate crimes,” said he was “unable to attend.” A spokeswoman for Ryan said the speaker wasn’t able to make the trip on short notice. Unlike Casey, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) was invited to join Trump in Pittsburgh, but a spokesman said Toomey — who had attended a vigil and met with law enforcement officials and Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh since the shooting — had previously scheduled commitments elsewhere.
Trump’s visit came as Pittsburgh shifted to the grim ritual that follows mass shootings: a procession of funerals, one after another, offering chances to celebrate the lives of the victims and mourn what was lost on Saturday.
Trump’s remarks and incendiary rhetoric in office contributed to the pushback his visit received before Air Force One touched down. Tens of thousands of people signed an open letter from a progressive Jewish group based in Pittsburgh saying he would not be welcome “until you fully denounce white nationalism” and “cease your assault on immigrants and refugees.”
About an hour before Trump arrived, more than 100 protesters jammed onto a street corner in Squirrel Hill, the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where the synagogue is located and many victims lived.
“This didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Ardon Shorr said. “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.”
Officials say Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old charged in the case, gunned down 11 people in the synagogue and then wounded responding officers while saying: “I just want to kill Jews.”
These remarks continued when he arrived at Allegheny General Hospital, according to the hospital’s president, who told local reporters that at least three of the doctors and nurses treating the suspected attacker were Jewish. Bowers was shot multiple times during the gun battle with police.
“We’re here to take care of sick people,” Jeffrey K. Cohen, president of the hospital and a member of the synagogue, told ABC affiliate WTAE. “We’re not here to judge you. . . . We’re here to take care of people that need our help.”
Bowers, who faces dozens of federal and state charges, including counts of hate crimes and homicide, was released from the hospital Monday morning, not long before making his first court appearance on the federal charges he faces.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s office said Tuesday that federal authorities denied his attempt to have Bowers arraigned on the state charges. Zappala said that he would prefer that local residents “sit in judgment” of Bowers in a trial but that he would let the federal case proceed and put the state charges on hold.
Investigators have pored over Bowers’s background and life since the shooting. He has been described by people who knew him as an unremarkable, even forgettable, loner in real life, while his postings on social media were littered with hate-filled rants aimed at Jewish people and others.
Federal officials have concluded that Bowers legally acquired and possessed all of the guns recovered from Tree of Life synagogue and his home, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday.
The first funerals began Tuesday, as mourners packed into long lines and overwhelmed synagogues and theaters to pay tribute to some of the people slain in Saturday’s attack. These gatherings were defiantly upbeat, marked with the hugs and greetings like those seen before the start of the Shabbat services occurring Saturday morning when the gunman burst into Tree of Life.
Around 4 p.m., nearly 2,000 marchers assembled at Forbes Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard, not far from where some of Saturday’s victims had been buried. Organizers led the marches through practice runs of traditional Jewish songs before the crowd began a slow, solemn march down Squirrel Hill streets.
“He refused to cancel his rally when it would have been the decent thing to cancel the rally,” said Jonathan Sarney, 72, referring to Trump’s campaign stop in Murphysboro, Ill., held the same day the shooting occurred. “And now he’s coming to intrude on the funerals when it’s an indecent thing to do.”
Moriah Balingit, Kyle Swenson, Kayla Epstein and Gabriel Pogrund in Pittsburgh and Avi Selk, Alice Crites and Eli Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.