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Pence: Don’t link political rhetoric to Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

After the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Vice President Pence said Oct. 27, "There is no place in America for violence or anti-Semitism." (Video: Reuters)
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Vice President Pence has rejected suggestions that the inflammatory rhetoric from President Trump and others in the Republican Party has contributed to the rise of political violence, arguing that members of both parties engage in heated debate.

Pence made the remarks in an interview with NBC News after Saturday’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, in which 11 people were killed and six wounded. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Several other Trump administration officials, lawmakers and others weighed in on the shooting in appearances on the Sunday morning news shows.

In the interview with NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard, Pence denounced the shooting and said the country has “no tolerance for the kind of anti-Semitic violence that reared its ugly head today.” But he also defended the often-explosive language used by Trump, maintaining that the president “connected to the American people because he spoke plainly.”

“Everyone has their own style,” Pence said in the interview, which aired Saturday. “And frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences. But I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence, Vaughn. And I don’t think the American people connect it.”

In the wake of the shooting and last week’s string of mail bombs allegedly sent by a Trump supporter targeting high-profile critics of the president, some have called for Trump to tone down his rhetoric.

Pence rebuffed those calls, contending that “debate is healthy in America.”

“We want a free and open political debate in America where everyone expresses themselves passionately and openly — but also recognize the difference between passionate debate and acts of violence and evil,” Pence said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto decided religious and ethnic hatred on Oct. 28 about the synagogue shooting that claimed 11 lives. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen called the shooting “a pure act of evil.”

“You’ve heard that from the president and vice president yesterday; that’s what it is,” she said. “We all condemn this in the strongest terms possible.”

Nielsen said her agency had conducted a site visit at the synagogue as recently as March, with a protective security adviser — a step officials often take, she said.

Some on the Sunday morning news shows urged a stronger line from Trump.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the motivation of the alleged synagogue shooter, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, “certainly looks . . . pretty clear.”

Bowers appears to have railed against Jewish people and refugees online.

Schiff also raised the issue of the country’s political climate, asking, “What kind of climate are we creating?”

“No one sets the tone more than the president of the United States,” Schiff said. “There’s no escaping the tone that he sets.”

Former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson echoed those sentiments, saying in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” that the president “has the largest bullhorn.”

“Americans should demand that their leaders insist on change, a more civil discourse and a more civil environment generally,” said Johnson, who served in the Obama administration.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, acknowledged that Trump could be more careful with the language he uses.

“I’ve said this to the president before: I think that the president needs to be more clear in his rhetoric and doesn’t need to be as caustic in his rhetoric,” Lankford said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That’s the way he chooses to be able to communicate things, and I don’t think it’s always helpful.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said on “This Week” that while he was encouraged by Trump’s remarks Saturday on the shooting, “it isn’t what you say after the tragedy that only matters.”

“It’s the environment that you create with your rhetoric,” Greenblatt said. “And at the ADL, we have spoken out when candidate Trump or President Trump has invoked anti-Semitic memes and used the kind of rhetoric favored by white supremacists.”

He said the organization saw a 57 percent uptick in acts of harassment, vandalism and violence against Jewish people in 2017, the largest single-year increase since it began recording such incidents.

“Let me tell you, we should not look away when anti-Semitism is on the rise,” Greenblatt said. “We need to act.”

The chairmen of the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees, meanwhile, urged against politicization of the Pittsburgh shooting and the mail bombs and called for unity.

“This should not be a political response but rather a response in how we can further bring us together,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, pointed to last year’s shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) during a congressional baseball practice, saying “hate has no ideology.” The shooter at the baseball game was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“We didn’t blame Bernie Sanders when Steve Scalise was shot. We all came together. I think we can all come together now. It may take us about nine days [when the midterm elections take place] for that to happen, but I think we can all come together now,” Stivers said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Asked what role Trump should be taking in the wake of the synagogue shooting, Stivers said: “Well, you know, I sometimes disagree with the way the president treats people. I thought after the pipe bombs, he initially set the right tone of unity and coming together. And I hope that he will continue on that path.”

In an interview on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) also downplayed the impact of Trump’s rhetoric.

Ratcliffe, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the response of law enforcement officials to the Pittsburgh shooting and to the mail bombs, saying there should be more focus on their investigative work rather than the state of political discourse.

“I understand people want to always make everything political and turn it into political discourse. Look, there’s been rhetoric on both sides. . . . At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s political rhetoric. It’s mental illness that is causing these tragedies or would-be tragedies. And we have got a mental health crisis in this country,” Ratcliffe said.