White House says Trumps to go to Pennsylvania on Tuesday

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE and first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump beefs up impeachment defense with Dershowitz, Starr Trump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE will travel to Pennsylvania on Tuesday in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the White House announced on Monday, despite local officials' concern about such a visit.

During a rare news briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday said the Trumps are visiting "to express the support of the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community."

The trip comes amid a nationwide controversy over the president's heated rhetoric and how much it has fueled political and religious divisions.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sanders became emotional while delivering a lengthy defense of Trump's feelings toward the Jewish community, noting he is "the grandfather of several Jewish grandchildren."

"The president cherishes the American Jewish community for everything it stands for and contributes to our country," she said.

Sanders called the killing of nearly a dozen worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue as an "atrocity" and "a chilling act of mass murder."

"We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms and everywhere and anywhere it appears," she said. "The American people reject hatred, bigotry, prejudice and violence."

But she also forcefully pushed back against criticism that Trump has not done enough to denounce anti-Semitism and has fueled the toxic political atmosphere that many say served as a petri dish for this past week's violence.

"The very first thing that the president did was condemn the attacks," Sanders said. "The very thing the media did was blame the president and make him responsible for these ridiculous acts. That is outrageous."

Sanders did not offer additional details about Tuesday’s visit, including whether the Trumps would visit Pittsburgh or the synagogue where the shooting took place.

Saturday's massacre left 11 people dead and six others wounded in what is believed to be the deadliest act of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The suspected gunman, Robert Bowers, allegedly yelled about killing Jews as he opened fire inside the congregation. Bowers, who has a history of making anti-Semitic remarks on social media, was charged with 29 criminal counts, including hate crime charges, that could lead to the death penalty.

Trump has drawn criticism for his response to both the shooting and last week's bomb scare involving prominent Democrats.

Some leaders associated with the synagogue have said they do not want Trump to visit. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition calling on Trump to push back a visit until he "fully denounce[s] white nationalism."

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) also asked Trump to hold off on a visit until funerals are held for all 11 victims, which are likely to be ongoing Tuesday. 

"I would ask the White House to make as their consideration in any potential visit, first the will of the families and second, the ability to keep focused on where the focus should be: the victims and their funerals," Peduto said, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  

"All attention tomorrow should be on the victims," he added. "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 away to a potential presidential visit."

But others, including the rabbi of Tree of Life, have said Trump is welcome to visit.

The debate is emblematic of the divide within the Jewish community, and the nation as a whole, over Trump's stance on racism and anti-Semitism, as well as his handling of national tragedies.

Trump on Saturday tweeted that "All of America is in mourning over the mass murder of Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh." He also delivered a forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism during a speech in Indiana.

But he decided to go ahead with a planned campaign rally later that day in Illinois. Trump told reporters before departing for a rally last Friday, following the bomb scare, that he rejected calls to tone down his rhetoric.

"I could really tone it up because, as you know, the media's been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party," Trump said.

Sanders pushed back on the notion Trump is partly to blame for the violence, saying "you can't start putting the responsibility of individuals on anybody but the individual who carries out the crime."

The president has been praised by many in the Jewish community for his fiery defense of Israel and his decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But he has also drawn scrutiny from Jewish groups that say his rhetoric attracts white nationalists and anti-Semites.

That criticism reached a fever pitch last year, when Trump said there were some "very fine people" at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a counterprotester was killed.

The White House's statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2017 also failed to mention that Jews were victims of the Nazi genocide, and the president's use of the term "globalist" to describe his critics is widely seen in the Jewish community as a code word for Jews.

The president's comments about a migrant caravan making its way through Mexico toward the U.S. was echoed by the alleged Pittsburgh shooter.

Trump on Monday referred to the group as an "invasion" full of gang members and criminals. In a social media post before the shooting, Bowers denounced the "third world caravan" as a group of "invaders" that was being aided by a Jewish nonprofit that helps resettle refugees.

Updated at 4:20 p.m.