Reeling From Tragedy, Many in Pittsburgh Say Trump Should Not Visit

PITTSBURGH — Still reeling from the horror and grief after Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh is now dealing with something else: the barbed politics of the 2018 midterms and widespread opposition to President Trump’s plan to visit here Tuesday.

Jewish leaders said that President Trump, who announced he would visit here on Tuesday, was not welcome in Pittsburgh and accused him of stirring up extremism.

Mayor William Peduto, who strongly rejected Mr. Trump’s suggestion that armed guards in houses of worship are the answer to violence, warned that the president would be a distraction from funerals taking place.

Many in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh cited what they saw as the president’s divisive rhetoric, which they feel had a role in enabling the violence here, as well as other recent episodes including the mail bombs sent from Florida to prominent Democratic figures and what appears to be the racial killing of two black shoppers near Louisville, Ky. Interviews in Florida reflected a similar urgency and unease about the intersection of violence in American life and the looming midterm elections.

The incidents returned to a boil a long-running issue dating at least to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, when Mr. Trump was widely condemned for equating neo-Nazis with demonstrators protesting them.

Now, one week before Americans head to the polls, criticisms that the president is sowing hurtful divisions in society have become an electoral issue, a turn of events that the White House and Republicans are vehemently pushing back on. Chants of “Vote! Vote! Vote!” broke out during vigils for victims of the synagogue shootings.

Not all Jewish leaders said Mr. Trump was unwelcome. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was in the sanctuary leading a service for the Tree of Life congregation during the shootings, told CNN on Monday: “I’m a citizen. He’s my president. He is certainly welcome.”

The president’s visit was announced at a briefing Monday in which Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the news media were unfairly blaming Mr. Trump for inspiring violent acts by lone individuals.

She echoed Mr. Trump himself, who on Sunday night angrily took aim at the media one day after denouncing the Pittsburgh attack as a “wicked act of pure evil and anti-Semitic.”

“The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country,” the president wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

The issue was most painful and raw in Pittsburgh in the wake of the massacre in which the suspect has a record of virulent anti-Semitism.

“I do not want President Trump to come to Pittsburgh,” said Donna Coufal, the president-elect of Dor Hadash, one of three congregations worshiping in the same building on Saturday morning when 11 people were slaughtered. “I feel very sad saying that because I think if he was capable of feeling empathy or understanding how much we welcome strangers into our community, he would be welcome here.”

Steve Gelernter, a Republican who lives in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the backbone of the city’s Jewish population and where Tree of Life is a mainstay, said he was furious that Mr. Trump had not distanced himself enough from views espoused by white nationalists.

“He is giving a platform for the closet racists to come out and have a voice,” Mr. Gelernter said. “You never saw any leader speak this way and the country become so polarized.”

He said he intended to support Democrats on the ballot this year. His 86-year-old mother, Francine Gelernter, a Holocaust survivor who has lived in Pittsburgh for decades, said that for the first time she did not feel safe in America. She told a grandson, Max, to tuck the Chai necklace he wears under his shirt.

Mayor Peduto, a Democrat, said a presidential visit would be a distraction while congregations are burying their dead.

“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,” he said.

In Miami on Monday, Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee for governor, suggested that Mr. Trump — and Mr. Gillum’s Republican opponent, former Representative Ron DeSantis — bore responsibility if not for the violence then for the tone they set in public.

“Our civic discourse is under attack. That kind of irresponsible language is now leading to loss of life,” Mr. Gillum told reporters after a rally. “You can’t give harbor to it. You can’t decry it in a public statement after a tragedy has occurred and then go back to a public rally and then stoke that same kind of, I think, irresponsible language.”

Mr. DeSantis has been accused of courting racist elements in Florida and playing dog-whistle politics — implications he denies.

One Florida voter, Milo Marcos, 30, said he didn’t vote in 2016 but felt compelled to cast a straight-Republican ballot this year. “I don’t want Democrats to get the House or the Senate,” he said.

But he worried that the pipe bombs and Pittsburgh shooting would blunt Republicans’ momentum going into Election Day. “The press was good for the Republicans up to that point,” he said. “The caravan, I think that helped Republicans. You’re putting a face on illegal immigration.”

Now, he said: “It just kind of changes the subject and allows the media to bring back the narrative that people who are supporting Trump want to do terrorism. Which is not true. Every side has crazy people.”

In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate for governor, Scott Wagner, who styles himself a Trumplike figure, recently recorded a video boasting that he would “stomp all over” the face of Gov. Tom Wolf with golf spikes.

That threat was cited by a voter from Hummelstown, Pa., Jessica Kolaric, 46, who blamed Mr. Trump for a political climate where violence is no longer taboo. “For him to say he’s not inciting the violence within his party and this country, that’s absurd,” she said.

Democratic and Republican strategists suggested most voters’ attitudes were already hardened, including opinions about Mr. Trump’s sowing of division. Some said the latest violent episodes would probably not move many votes.

“There’s plenty of divisive rhetoric on the left: You can go to Eric Holder or Maxine Waters or whoever you like and find abhorrent comments,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania. “I think most voters have made up their mind one way or the other on both the president’s rhetoric and the rhetoric on the left.”

Still, the scenes out of Pittsburgh during the president’s visit might paint a picture with the potential to surprise partisans on both sides. Mr. Trump has mostly avoided visiting states and cities where he is deeply unpopular.

Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Josh Friedman, a leader of a progressive Jewish group, Bend the Arc-Pittsburgh, which circulated the letter over the weekend telling Mr. Trump to stay away, predicted the president would find a hostile reception.

“He’s going to find streets filled with people that don’t want him here,” he said.

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