Local, national officials decline to appear with Trump in Pittsburgh

Posted at 4:40 PM, Oct 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-30 16:40:51-04

Local and national officials are declining to appear with President Donald Trump on Tuesday as he visits a grieving Pittsburgh, where funerals for slain congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue were beginning.

Trump, accompanied by the First Lady and prominent Jewish members of his administration — including daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — arrived in the stricken city just before 4 p.m. ET. He was expected to visit with wounded law enforcement officers and pay respects to the dead amid ongoing funeral observances for the mostly elderly victims. He was due back in Washington in a matter of hours.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were all invited to join the President but were not planning to take part in the visit, according to two congressional sources. Through their offices, McConnell and Ryan both cited scheduling conflicts.

Pennsylvania’s two US senators were also not planning to join Trump in Pittsburgh. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, was invited to join the President but declined, according to a spokesman, citing previous commitments in another part of the state. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey was not invited by the White House, according to his communications director. Casey will attend a vigil for the victims in southeastern Pennsylvania.

A spate of local and state officials also said they would not appear with Trump when he visits a hospital and pays respects to the 11 victims of Saturday’s massacre.

The White House has declined to say who the President will meet with when he travels to Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon. One official described the visit as “understated.”

“The President and first lady are traveling to Pittsburgh today to show their respect, honor the lives of those lost and offer prayers and condolences to a grieving community,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said. “The horrific tragedy in Pittsburgh is not a political event and out of respect, the President extended a bipartisan invitation to congressional leadership to travel with him to Pennsylvania. Understandably, the members had prior commitments or wanted to show their respect in a private way.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto — who said this week Trump should forestall a visit while burials begin — will not appear with Trump, according to his spokesman.

“Mayor Peduto’s sole focus today is on the funerals and supporting the families,” said Tim McNulty, Peduto’s communications director.

McNulty said “there has been communication with the White House” about the President’s visit, but added officials did not get final word about the timing of the trip until it was made public.

City hall “got confirmation along with everyone else yesterday when Sarah Sanders announced it in the press briefing,” McNulty said.

With an 11-rally campaign itinerary set to begin later this week, there is little flexibility in the President’s schedule. The President has insisted that his rallies for Republican candidates not be canceled following the shooting and has told aides he is itching to hit the trail.

On Monday evening, Peduto said on CNN that he advised Trump’s aides that a visit on Tuesday was too early.

“We did try to get the message out to the White House that our priority tomorrow is the first funeral,” Peduto told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“I do believe that it would be best to put the attention on the families this week, and if he (Trump) were to visit, choose a different time to be able to do it,” the mayor said. “Our focus as a city will be on the families and the outreach that they’ll need this week and the support that they’ll need to get through it.”

Peduto says when the city has buried the victims, “I think there’s the opportunity for presidential visits.”

Pittsburgh County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also said he would not be meeting with the President on Tuesday.

“I will not be meeting with the President. If the President wishes to come next week, or the next, that’s something we can look at,” he told CNN. “I’m focused on family and community.”

A White House official said on Tuesday there was a discussion about scheduling the visit later in the week — perhaps on Wednesday or Thursday — but the optics of visiting Pittsburgh on the same day as one of the President’s campaign rallies weren’t viewed as ideal.

And, the official said, the President was insistent on visiting Pittsburgh because he said he would on Saturday, long before anyone knew about objections from local officials.

Trump is scheduled to be in Florida on Wednesday night and Missouri on Thursday night, followed by two rallies a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Finally, on Monday, he has three rallies.

The White House Office of Public Engagement, which is a liaison to local government officials and groups, is taking the lead on the Pittsburgh trip. An official says they still believe the trip can work by visiting law enforcement officials and perhaps the wounded officers still in the hospital.

And though some in the White House realize the trip’s timing is less than ideal, there are no plans to change the it, the official said.

All presidential travel comes with heavy security and logistics concerns; in the past, the White House has said visiting the sites of tragedies or disasters must come with consideration for events on the ground.

In addition to helping protect the President in Pittsburgh, police forces will also be tasked with guarding the funerals for victims that are set to begin on Tuesday.

Trump’s visit comes amid a widening national debate over the President’s rhetoric, including the angry and at times violent messages he espouses during campaign rallies.

In Pittsburgh, some progressive Jewish leaders have encouraged the President to stay home. In an open letter to the President, members of the city’s “Bend the Arc” organization, a progressive group, wrote that his words and policies over the past three years “have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement,” and that he is not welcome until he “fully (denounces) white nationalism.”

But Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading services at Tree of Life during Saturday’s shooting, said on CNN’s “New Day” Monday that “the President of the United States is always welcome.”

“I’m a citizen. He’s my President. He is certainly welcome,” he said.

When Trump has met with victims’ families after mass shootings or natural disasters in the past, he has conveyed a style of empathy that can sometimes feel stilted, particularly when compared to the freewheeling style he employs in most settings. He has yet to deliver a eulogy at a memorial service honoring the memories of Americans slain in gun violence or other attacks.

When Trump met with family members of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting earlier this year, he was photographed clutching a notecard with handwritten prompts like “I hear you” and “What would you most want me to know about your experience?” — a signal, at minimum, that some aides worried the usual signals of empathy may not come easily to him.

The White House on Monday insisted the President had demonstrated the required compassion during trying times.

“This is a President who has risen to that occasion and works to bring our country together in a number of occasions, whether it’s the hurricanes, whether it’s the Las Vegas shooting, whether it was the Pittsburgh shooting,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.