Trump to visit Pittsburgh in wake of synagogue shooting

Locals demanded Trump distance himself from bigots.

US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC April 9, 2018.  (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC April 9, 2018.
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
WASHINGTON -- US President Donald Trump will visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday to "show support for Jewish Americans" in the wake of an precedented massacre at a synagogue there over the weekend.
The president and first lady, Melania Trump, will travel to the scene of the crime, the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 congregants were slaughtered while marking the sabbath.
Announcing his trip, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump “cherishes” the contributions of Jews to American life and “adores Jewish Americans as part of his own family.”
“This atrocity was a chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred. And above all it was an act of evil,” Sanders said. “Antisemitism is a plague to humanity and it is responsible for some of the worst horrors in human history.”
Trump said that he planned to visit Pittsburgh over the weekend, but since then, active members of its Jewish community have asked him to stay away unless he expressly condemns the language and beliefs of white supremacists.
A letter penned by members of a local Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, has gained over 18,000 signatures online. “Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism,” it reads. “You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you cease your assault on immigrants and refugees.”
The mayor of Pittsburgh, a Democrat, said it should be up to the victims’ families to decide whether Trump is invited to attend funerals for the fallen this week. Some leaders from the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, where the shooting occurred expressed reservations to his visit.
But the current rabbi at Tree of Life, Jeffrey Myers, told CNN that he would welcome the president.
“The president of the United States is always welcome,” Myers said. “I’m a citizen. He’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”
Responding to the letter, Sanders referred back to Myers’s invitation and claimed that Trump has already condemned racist movements acting in his name. “The president has denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms on a number of occasions,” Sanders said. “They’re grieving, they’re hurting – the president wants to be there to show his support for the Jewish community.”
The Justice Department is likely to seek the death penalty for Robert Bowers, the man who opened fire on the synagogue, according to department officials. Scott Brady, who serves as attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania, has formally requested the government seek capital punishment for the shooter.
The decision to pursue the death penalty ultimately rests with US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions. “He’ll be subjected to the death penalty, perhaps,” Sessions said on Monday to an audience in Boston, noting that several of the 29 federal counts facing Bowers hold the potential for capital punishment.
The government is treating the event in Pittsburgh as a hate crime. In light of the slaughter there, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, announced on Monday that the department would launch a website to better track hate crimes.
“Simply because hate crimes are not reported does not mean they are not happening,” Rosenstein said, lamenting a dearth of direct reporting to law enforcement officials.
Bowers was released from a local hospital on Monday morning after recovering from wounds he incurred in a gunfight with law enforcement officials. He ultimately surrendered to police after fatally shooting 11 congregants and wounding several more.
The assailant was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, as well as several other weapons. In addition to a history of posting virulent antisemitic messages on social media filled with slurs and conspiracy theories, Bower had an active firearms license and had made at least six known gun purchases since 1996.
FBI documents, which were filed in court on Monday provided additional detail of his assault on the synagogue, which lasted over 20 minutes.
“During the course of his deadly assault on people at the synagogue, and simultaneously with his gunfight with law enforcement officers, Bowers made statements evincing an animus toward people of the Jewish faith,” the FBI report reads. “For example, Bowers commented to one law enforcement officer, in substance, ‘They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.’ Bowers repeated comments regarding genocide, his desire to kill Jewish people, and that Jewish people needed to die.”
Bowers appeared in court for the first time on Monday for his arraignment, and will enter a plea at a later date.
The event prompted a fierce national discussion over whether Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially divisive rhetoric has created an environment ripe for political violence. One week lies until the November 6 midterm elections, members of both parties were positioning the massacre in partisan terms.
Republicans dismissed concerns that Trump had provided cover and comfort to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and antisemites throughout his 2016 presidential campaign and in the first years of his presidency. Sanders said Trump would continue “fighting back” against critics and journalists raising concerns that his words were fanning the flames of division and hatred.
Democratic House members called on their Republican colleagues to hold hearings on the “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” threat of domestic terrorism from antisemites and white supremacists, previewing what may be in store should they take control of the lower congressional chamber next week.
Writing to the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, its ranking member Jerrold Nadler of New York, a prominent Jewish lawmaker and vocal critic of Trump, said it was the committee’s duty to investigate violent threats from wherever they might originate – including from the far-right.
Other Democratic members signed Nadler’s letter, sent days following the Pittsburgh shooting, after a white supremacist shot and killed two African Americans for their skin color, and another sent active bombs to prominent Democratic opponents of the president.
The Pittsburgh slaying was the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history.
“The House Judiciary Committee is charged with confronting the causes of racial and religious violence, assessing the adequacy of federal hate crimes statutes, and protecting the civil liberties of all Americans,” Nadler wrote. “It is our responsibility to respond to this madness, and to do so without delay.”
Nadler also requested the committee address the issue of gun safety, a highly partisan topic on Capitol Hill. He noted that Democrats requested a similar hearing after a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia shook the nation last summer, and that Republicans refused to schedule it.
“Please, let us set aside the politics for however long it takes for us to address this extraordinary threat,” the letter continued.
Next week’s mid-term elections will decide which major party controls the House and Senate. Current polling suggests that Democrats are likely to take control of the House, which has broad investigatory powers and the ability to impeach the president.