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Trump, aides struggle to balance midterm attacks with empathy after synagogue massacre

The president's plans to ratchet up his combativeness in the last week before the midterms has been complicated by a series of tragedies.

President Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bojangles' Coliseum, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in Charlotte, N.C.
President Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bojangles' Coliseum, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in Charlotte, N.C.Read moreEvan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON – Ahead of his Tuesday visit to Pittsburgh, President Trump and his top aides have struggled to balance their scorched-earth campaign strategy with calls for national unity following last weekend's slaughter of 11 Jewish worshipers in a synagogue there.

The president's plans to ratchet up his political attacks in the final seven-day sprint to the midterm elections have been complicated by a wave of separate and tragic crises.

Trump's leadership has been tested first by the shipment of more than a dozen pipe bombs to high-profile Democratic and media targets of the president, and then by the anti-Semitic mass shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue.

The White House's fraught balancing act was on display Monday during the afternoon press briefing – the first in nearly a month – where press secretary Sarah Sanders alternately sought to soothe national divisions and to inflame them.

Sanders choked up while decrying the "heinous acts" in Pittsburgh and said that Trump had "risen to that occasion" and helped bring the country together.

Simultaneously, however, she parroted Trump's scathing indictment of the media as partly responsible for the hateful atmosphere and vowed the president would continue to go after Democrats to highlight "the differences between the two parties."

"The very first action that the president did was condemn these heinous acts," Sanders told reporters. "The very first thing that the media did was condemn the president, go after him, try to place blame."

Trump's anger at the media boiled over during the weekend as news organizations delved into mail-bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc's avid support of the president. The Florida man attended Trump rallies and decorated the windows of his white van with positive images of Trump and Vice President Pence, and pictures of the president's Democratic foes with crosshairs over their faces or bodies.

Trump was upset by the degree to which the media focused on Sayoc's support of him, according to an adviser, and he channeled that anger on Twitter, where Monday he blamed the media for the nation's divisions and declared the "Fake News Must End!"

"There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news," Trump tweeted. "The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly."

Trump's outburst drew fresh rebukes, and not only from Democrats. David Lapan, who was press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security while it was led by John F. Kelly, who is now the president's chief of staff, wrote on Twitter: "Over 30+ years as a U.S. Marine, I defended our country against its true enemies. In 20+ years as a USMC, Pentagon and DHS spokesman, I dealt w/ the news media nearly every day. I know quite a bit about the press and know this – they are NOT the enemy of the American people."

The synagogue shooting occurred just as Trump was ramping up his campaign activities on behalf of Republicans heading into the next Tuesday's elections. The president is expected to barnstorm the country, with at least 11 "Make America Great Again" rallies planned over the final six days, starting Wednesday in Fort Myers, Fla.

Trump has been focused intently on the election, asking his aides to schedule as many rallies as possible in the final week of campaigning and meeting regularly with his political team to pore over the latest polls of key Senate and House races.

But the Pittsburgh shooting has been an unwelcome interruption. Trump was tentatively scheduled to deliver a fiery speech Tuesday on immigration, in which he was considering announcing a plan to at least temporarily ban the entry of Central American migrants at the southern border and deny them the opportunity to seek asylum.

But he scuttled those remarks in favor of his visit to Pittsburgh, where he is expected to meet with law enforcement officials. The speech is now expected to take place after the midterms, a senior White House official said, in part because of a recognition that the political moment has changed.

The administration did, however, move ahead with a scheduled announcement Monday of its decision to deploy thousands of additional troops to the U.S. border with Mexico. The move came as the president warned in a tweet of an "invasion" in the form of a dwindling caravan of migrants making its way slowly north through Mexico.

Behind the scenes at the White House, aides have been debating how to strike the right note between Trump's closing campaign pitch and playing the role of national consoler, according to people familiar with the conversations, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

As the mail-bomb and synagogue-shooting crises unfolded over the past week, Trump received advice from allies who urged the importance of sounding presidential, but he was at times annoyed by what he viewed as unnecessary and gratuitous counsel, said one Republican in frequent contact with the White House.

Trump's advisers privately concede that the president is not particularly good at projecting empathy – and that he does not believe his supporters expect him to seem soft or emotional. Trump was deeply uncomfortable visiting the family of a dead soldier early in his presidency, aides have said, and he has made awkward gestures, such as flashing a thumb's up, during hospital visits and other somber occasions.

Inside Trump's orbit, there is an acknowledgment that the strategy will ultimately be driven by the president himself, and a sense that the rapid news cycle – including the caravan – could overtake the current crises and shift the focus again.

Trump's Jewish daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, both senior White House advisers, were among those who advised the president to visit Pittsburgh. They took a call from him to discuss the shooting on Saturday – when the couple normally observes Shabbat with their three young children – and Ivanka sent a tweet about the massacre, both indications of how seriously they took the incident, according to someone familiar with their conversations.

Sanders announced Monday that the president and first lady Melania Trump, joined by Ivanka Trump and Kushner, will visit Pennsylvania on Tuesday to commemorate the shooting victims, even as the mayor of Pittsburgh publicly requested that the trip be postponed until after the funerals.

City officials were taken aback by the announcement of Trump's trip and expect it will draw protests on the same day as the first funerals.

Tens of thousands of people have signed an open letter from a Pittsburgh-based Jewish group saying the president would not be welcome in the city unless he denounced white nationalism and stopped "targeting" minorities.

Trump said Monday night in a Fox News Channel interview that he was traveling to Pittsburgh "to pay my respects. I'm also going to the hospital to see the officers and some of the people that were so badly hurt."

Trump defended his decision to continue holding political rallies amid tragedy. Referencing his Saturday-night rally in Illinois, he told Fox, "Rallies are meant to be fun. Rallies are meant to be everything and I said, 'Tone it done,' and then you saw the group saying, 'No, don't tone it down, don't tone it down.' So we had a great rally in Illinois, for some great people, and frankly I think that's probably the way it should be."

Senior administration officials dispatched two White House staffers who are Jewish – Avi Berkowitz, a deputy assistant to the president and Kushner adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the special representative for international negotiations – to Pittsburgh over the weekend. Trump was aware of their trip, and they are planning to stay on the ground until at least after the president's visit Tuesday.

In remarks to reporters Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) asked the White House to consider "two important factors" before scheduling a visit: the will of the victims' families and the fact that the city's attention – including the efforts of law enforcement officers – will be focused Tuesday on the victims' funerals.

"If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead. Our attention and our focus is going to be on them, and we don't have public safety that we can take away from what is needed in order to do both," Peduto said, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Trump voiced outrage Saturday over the Pittsburgh massacre, saying, "This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil."

Trump was criticized in some corners for seeming to only go through the motions of acting presidential and later reverting to partisan attack mode. He decided to go ahead with a campaign rally Saturday evening in Illinois hours after the synagogue slaughter and continued to go after his foes.

"Almost any president of my lifetime would have canceled the campaign rally," presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. "So deep in Donald Trump's manner of leadership is dividing in order to conquer. Even at a time of national crisis like this, you see it very much on display. . . . He has shown himself completely incapable of healing our wounds."

Trump has some defenders in the Jewish community, however. Ken Kurson, a close friend of Kushner's, recalled seeing Trump at a bris for one of his grandchildren, Theodore Kushner, and that he had never seen the president do or say anything that struck him as anti-Semitic.

"My personal opinion is the president reacted very forcefully and appropriately with real emotion," Kurson said. "The words he used mattered to me. He instantly called it an anti-Semitic act. That's important for the world to hear, to hear him attach a moral component."

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, argued that "anti-religiosity" and a trend of "making fun of people who express religion" were partly responsible for the Pittsburgh shooting – an argument that the president had not yet made but that could resonate with many conservative Trump voters.

"The late-night comedians. The unfunny people on TV shows. It's always anti-religious," Conway said Monday on Fox News Channel.

"This is no time to be driving God out of the public square," she said. "No time to be making fun of people."

If Sanders's performance in her 23-minute news conference Monday seemed, at points, to strike an off-kilter note, she was simply reflecting her boss's posture. He has veered incongruously between trying to unify the country and attacking his perceived enemies.

Sanders said that Trump's rhetoric is unlikely to change and that the public should expect him to attack Democrats – or any rival – whenever he feels under assault.

"The president's going to continue to fight back when these individuals not only attack him but attack members of his administration and supporters of his administration," she said. "Doesn't matter if there's a midterm or not, the president's going to defend himself and he's going to fight back."

The Washington Post's Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.