WASHINGTON: U.S. President Donald Trump, shrugging off thousands who protested his visit as unwelcome, offered condolences on Tuesday (Oct 30) at the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 Jewish worshipers were shot to death during Sabbath prayers.
The presidential visit, which sources said congressional leaders of both parties declined to join, came as thousands of mourners attended the first funerals for victims of Saturday's massacre, the deadliest attack ever on American Jewry.
The president, who opponents say has stoked a toxic political climate conducive to acts of violence, paid a brief visit to the Tree of Life temple where the shooting rampage occurred, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump.
They were greeted by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who led them inside the temple where they lighted candles for the victims. Emerging about 18 minutes later, the couple walked to a memorial outside the building, where the first lady placed a flower and the president placed a small stone on a marker for each of the dead.
Trump's motorcade left after about 30 minutes at the synogogue, with the president making no public remarks.
Several thousand protesters, an ethnically mixed crowd of all ages including members of Pittsburgh's tight-knit Jewish community, held an anti-Trump rally about a block away from the synagogue just as his visit began, singing Old Testament psalms and carrying signs with such slogans as "We build bridges not walls."
One group of demonstrators chanted, "President hate, leave our state," while others yelled, "Words have meaning."
WEEK BEFORE ELECTIONS
Trump also stopped at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital where three police officers wounded in a gunfight with the shooting suspect were still recovering. White House officials said the president visited with the injured officers and their families.
His visit to Pennsylvania's second-largest city came just seven days before national elections that will determine whether Trump's Republican Party will maintain its control in both houses of Congress or whether the Democrats will seize a majority in one chamber or both.
The president and his wife were joined by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law who are Jewish and serve as White House advisers, and by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is also Jewish.
The first funerals for the victims of the attack were held earlier on Tuesday. More than 1,800 people, some from across the United States, came to pay respects to relatives of David Rosenthal, 54, and Cecil Rosenthal, 59, at Rodef Shalom, another synagogue in the Squirrel Hill district that forms the heart of the city's Jewish community. Police officers were posted outside the temple.
The two brothers, who lived at a home for people with disabilities, were among the 11 mostly elderly congregants killed when a gunman stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on worshipers, yelling, "All Jews must die."
Funeral services were also held for Jerry Rabinowitz, a 66-year-old family physician, and retiree Daniel Stein, 71. The crowd of about 2,000 at Rabinowitz's funeral included nurses dressed in their surgical scrubs.
The accused gunman, Robert Bowers, 46, was arrested after he was wounded in a shootout with police. He was charged on Monday with 29 federal felony counts, including hate crimes, and could face the death penalty if convicted.
The attack has heightened a national debate over Trump's rhetoric, which critics say has contributed to a surge in white nationalist and neo-Nazi activity. The Trump administration has rejected the notion that he has encouraged far-right extremists who have embraced him.
'WORDS HAVE MEANING'
But protest organizers said Trump's frequent tweets about the caravans of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico en route to the United States may have been a factor in provoking Saturday's bloodshed. They noted that Trump has characterized the caravans as an "invasion" while falsely stating they harbor terrorists and are financed in part by Democrats and the Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
In a social media post on Saturday, Bowers referred to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish refugee aid organization, as helping to "bring invaders in that kill our people," declaring: "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
Protest organizers linked Bowers' online screed to Trump's caravan rhetoric in a statement announcing their rally.
The announcement echoed an open letter from a group of local Jewish leaders who told Trump: "You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism."
More than 78,000 people have signed the letter, organized and posted online by the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization opposed to what it calls "the immoral agenda of the Trump administration and the Republican Party."
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto objected to Trump's visit on the first day of funerals, saying the president's presence and additional security measures entailed would distract attention from the "priority" of burying the dead.
The top four members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives - Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi - declined invitations to join Trump in Pittsburgh, two sources familiar with the planning said.
An aide to McConnell said the Kentucky Republican was unable to attend because of a conflict with events in his home state. An aide to Ryan said he was not able to travel to Pittsburgh on such short notice.