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Trump visits Pittsburgh synagogue amid protests

PITTSBURGH —  President Donald Trump made a controversial visit to this grief-stricken city Tuesday, stopping at the synagogue that was the site of the worst terrorist attack against Jews in U.S. history as hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his presence.

On the same day the city began to hold funerals for the 11 victims of Saturday's mass killing, Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived in Pittsburgh about 3:45 p.m. They came for about three hours despite protests and requests by some city officials who said the president should have stayed away and let the city mourn.

Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who are Jewish, accompanied them. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was also with them.

No high-level city or county officials met the president at the airport. About an hour later, the Trump family arrived at the Tree of Life synagogue. They spoke outside with the synagogue's rabbi, former Long Islander Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, and other synagogue officials.

They then walked inside and lit candles in what is still a crime scene, left after suspected shooter Robert Bowers, 46, gunned down the victims Saturday while spewing anti-Semitic slurs. He has been charged with the killings and prosecutors said they intend to seek the death penalty.

After the Trumps came out about 15 minutes later, they observed a Jewish tradition and placed stones and flowers on 11 white wooden Stars of David bearing each victim's name.

In the background, the faint chants of "No More Hate!" and "Trump Go Home!" could be heard from some protesters. And blocks away, several hundred people gathered for a mostly peaceful demonstration against the president's appearance.

Trump said in a Fox News interview Monday night that he was going 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.”

After stopping at the synagogue, Trump went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where three of the four police officers injured in a gun battle with the suspect were being treated.

Dr. Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the president and his family met with four patients — including police officers — and their families and spent a “considerable amount of time” talking to them.

 “He expressed his thanks for their service and his sorrow over their injuries and really wanted to hear their experiences,” said Yealy at a news conference after the president’s visit. “They seemed very grateful for his interest.”

The family of at least one victim, along with the mayor of Pittsburgh, asked that Trump not visit the Steel City. Congressional leaders from both parties declined to accompany Trump on the trip.

Critics have accused Trump and his administration of creating a climate that helps to foster anti-Semitism. Trump and his supporters have denied that, pointing out that he enjoys the political support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president's daughter and son-in-law are Jewish and he has condemned the "evil" of anti-Semitism.

The president's visit took place hours after the first of the funerals of Saturday's massacre took place, including those for two brothers, Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, who like the others were gunned down as they celebrated the Jewish Sabbath. Funerals are scheduled to run at least through Friday.

Susan Rothenberg, a Presbyterian minister who lives less than a block away from the synagogue, held a handwritten sign that read: “Trump Go Home” Rothenberg, who is married to a Jewish man from Farmingdale, loudly chanted, “Words matter” and “Make America peaceful again” with several neighbors during Trump's synagogue visit.

“This is a community that welcomes every color of skin, every language, every religion,” said Rothenberg. “We wanted to make sure Donald Trump heard us.”

A Facebook group advertising one of the demonstrations wrote:  "The President’s visit on Tuesday, much like his ideas and his presidency, is unwelcome in our city and in our country. It is up to us to let this be known."

Some of Trump’s allies defended the president’s trip. “I’m glad that the president is going down,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on Fox News. “I think it’s an important display that he goes down there to show that we’re all Americans in these kind of tragedies, and we’re going to stand with each other.” Scalise was injured in a 2017 Virginia shooting.

But Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who had said the president should wait to visit until the dead are buried, said in an email Tuesday: "The Mayor is focusing solely on the funerals for victims, which started today, and is making no other appearances." 

Amie Downs, spokeswoman for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said he was not meeting with Trump while he's in town. 

One protester, Neenie Costello held a sign that read: “President Hate…Leave Our State!!”

“His hateful rhetoric; I totally blame him,” said Costello, 61, a personal trainer. “It’s just obvious everything he says at his rallies and then it happens.”

Aaron Bloomfield, a 32-year-old chemist from Squirrel Hill, held a sign that read: “Trump, apologize for stoking the hatred or go home!”

“I do not appreciate the presence of our leader,” said Bloomfield, who had his young son in a carrier on his back. “I do not think he will have anything positive to do here.”

Outside the Tree of Life synagogue earlier Tuesday, mourners continued to bring flowers for the victims. 

Elie Sheva, 48, of Elizabeth Township, said she frequents Squirrel Hill often to buy kosher food and she would often see the Rosenthal brothers. 

"They were wonderful," said Sheva, a nurse. "Just two of the kindest, brightest people you'd ever meet. They'd greet you on the street and tell you to ‘Smile, because Hashem [God]  loves you.’ " 

Of the president's visit, she said: "If he wants to come, let him come. ...This kind of hatred is not the fault of any one person." 

Ali Perri, a schoolteacher from nearby Monroeville, was moved to tears as she stood in front of the enormous pile of flowers flanking the synagogue's lawn.

"I needed to stop," at the memorial. said Perri, 32, who said she was raised as a Catholic but describes herself now as spiritual. "I'm so devastated. I feel helpless.

"It's such a profound loss for their community and the Pittsburgh community," she said. "It's devastating. All you can do is pray the hatred stops." 

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