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Pittsburgh shooting victim’s family, top officials shun Trump ahead of visit: ‘He was blaming the community’

Three days after the deadliest day for Jews in U.S. history, grief-stricken Squirrel Hill was readying for funerals – and bracing for a visit from the president.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday.Read moreOlivier Douliery / Abaca Press

PITTSBURGH — A mourning family doesn't want to meet him. Top members of his own party refuse to join him. The mayor has explicitly asked him not to come. And yet President Trump plans to visit this grief-stricken city Tuesday, amid accusations that he and his administration continue to fuel the anti-Semitism that inspired Saturday's massacre inside a synagogue.

The president and first lady Melania Trump are scheduled to arrive in the late afternoon, several hours after the first funerals are held for the 11 victims of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. More than 1,000 people have so far signed up for a demonstration at the same time — declaring Trump "unwelcome in our city and in our country."

Congressional leaders from both parties — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) — have all declined invitations to join Trump on his visit, according to three officials familiar with matter.

So had at least one of the victims' families.

Trump offered to visit with the family of Daniel Stein, a 71-year-old who had just become a grandfather when he was gunned down at Tree of Life. Stein's nephew, Stephen Halle, said the family declined. It was in part because of the comments Trump made in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when he suggested the synagogue should have had an armed guard.

"Everybody feels that they were inappropriate," Halle said Tuesday — the same day his uncle was set to be buried — of Trump's remarks about security. "He was blaming the community.

"A church, a synagogue, should not be a fortress. It should be an open welcoming place to feel safe. "

Trump has not announced whether he will visit Squirrel Hill — the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where the synagogue is located and many victims lived. Tree of Life has been closed since Saturday's rampage, which was allegedly carried out by a man who had ranted online that Jews were bringing "invaders in that kill our people. "

The suspect, Robert Bowers, was referring to a Jewish group that worked with refugees in the United States. Trump has repeatedly referred to migrants as dangerous invaders, and did so again in a tweet on Monday. The president has also repeatedly denigrated "globalists" despite warnings from Jewish groups that the word is code for Jews in anti-Semitic circles, and appeared in one of Bowers' online rants.

Trump's supporters, however, paint him as a friend to Jews, pointing out his support for the Israeli government and his strong condemnations of "evil" anti-Semitism on Saturday.

"I'm just going to pay my respects," Trump said in a Fox News interview Monday evening. "I'm also going to the hospital to see the officers and some of the people that were so badly hurt. So, and I really look forward to going. I would have done it even sooner, but I didn't want to disrupt anymore than they already had disruption."

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who has called out "hate" in U.S. political speech since some of his congregants were gunned down, has said he plans to welcome the president. The accused gunman is an avowed anti-Semite.

"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 told The Washington Post on Monday.

However, Tree of Life's former rabbi, Chuck Diamond, told the Daily Beast that Trump's rhetoric was "awful." Like Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D), Diamond asked the president to postpone his trip until the community has finished mourning.

"I would plead with the president to wait," Diamond said. "I also hope he would come in and offer his condolences after we have buried them and had a chance to mourn. "

Funerals are scheduled to run at least through Friday.

Tens of thousands of people have signed an open letter published by a progressive Jewish organization, Bend the Arc, saying that Trump would not be welcome unless he denounced white nationalism and stopped "targeting" minorities in his rhetoric and policies.

"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. "

Aside from his rhetoric, Trump has been criticized for repeatedly responded to mass shootings by suggesting that more armed people could have changed the outcomes, even though armed officers have been present at multiple rampages in recent years, including at a Parkland, Fla., high school, an Orlando nightclub and the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Trump made the same suggestion after the attack on the synagogue, although the gunman shot three police officers before he was captured.

The White House woke up to a new furor on Tuesday morning, as video spread virally from a Monday evening rally in which Vice President Pence prayed for the synagogue's victims with the leader of a "Messianic synagogue" who urges Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah — a movement condemned by Jewish leaders as Christian evangelism in disguise.

A Pence aide told The Post that Rabbi Loren Jacobs was invited to the Michigan rally by Lena Epstein, a Republican congressional candidate, and said Pence did not know who the religious leader was when he called him onstage "to deliver a message of unity. "

As The Post's Isaac Stanley-Becker reported, Jacobs invoked "Jesus the Messiah" and "Savior Yeshua" — another name for Jesus — at the rally as he offered a prayer for the dead and wounded in Pittsburgh. "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God and Father of my Lord and Savior Yeshua, Jesus the Messiah, and my God and Father, too," he intoned.

The first funeral — of two brothers, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, who had gone 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. "

Peduto said "all attention [Tuesday] should be on the victims." He also pointed to the logistical issues raised by a presidential visit, which requires intense security measures.

"We do not have enough public safety officials to provide enough protection at the funerals and to be able at the same time draw attention to a potential presidential visit," Peduto told reporters Monday.

The man accused in the attack — the deadliest on Jews in American history — made his first court appearance Monday, two days after the massacre. Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old truck driver, was using a wheelchair in federal court because of injuries he sustained in a gun battle with police at the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He allegedly told authorities upon his arrest that he was seeking to kill Jews, and repeated that pronouncement when he arrived in the emergency room at Allegheny General Hospital, where some of the doctors and nurses who treated him were Jewish.

Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell read the charges against Bowers, 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 the hearing 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 the first lady planned to visit Pittsburgh to "express the support of the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community. "

White House officials had said earlier in the day that they were pushing the president to cancel a potential speech Tuesday on immigration and visit this city 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.

Selk and Berman reported from Washington. Kayla Epstein and Tim Craig contributed reporting from Pittsburgh. Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey, Alice Crites, Julie Tate, Joel Achenbach, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Amy B Wang, Annie Gowen, Felicia Sonmez, Sari Horwitz and Aaron C. Davis contributed from Washington.