President Donald Trump travels to Pittsburgh on Tuesday after the worst anti-Semitic crime in American history, bringing with him a pulsing anger that his rhetoric is being blamed for the attack and intent on proving to his critics he can behave like a president.
For Trump, the role of consoler has sometimes come uneasily and, in his view, without tangible benefit. Trump has complained in the past that so-called “presidential” moments have gone unnoticed by his critics and unheralded in the media, leading him to wonder what the point of it all was.
This weekend, after Trump forcefully decried anti-Semitism during campaign appearances, he again protested to confidantes that the message wasn’t received with praise, according to people familiar with the conversations. Along with many of his aides, he viewed the continued questions about his divisive rhetoric as petty partisan attacks launched by his political opponents.
Still, after discussions with advisers that included daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who are Jewish, Trump declared his intent to visit Pittsburgh. The trip comes amid a last-minute midterm campaign push and has forestalled, for now, a planned address on immigration.
Trump has expressed concern his midterm messaging could be knocked off-kilter by the attack. Pittsburgh’s mayor called on Monday for Trump to wait to visit until after burials are complete, but with an 11-rally itinerary set for the end of the week, there was little flexibility in the President’s schedule.
His daughter and Kushner, will join Trump in Pittsburgh, along with first lady Melania Trump, who has sometimes worked with mixed results to soften her husband’s public image. He is expected to meet with some members of the Tree of Life congregation, who lost 11 members when a gunman opened fire inside the synagogue on Saturday morning.
More grievance than grief
In the wake of the slaying at the Pittsburgh synagogue, Trump has demonstrated more grievance than grief. Those grievances, once again, are rooted in how he innately believes he is being mistreated by the media. For days, he’s been complaining openly to allies and aides that he doesn’t believe he’s been given sufficient credit for his early comments denouncing the shooting.
But those comments were quickly overtaken by more inflammatory tweets from the President. Trump chose to use his bully pulpit on Monday by attacking the media – not by calling out the anti-Semitic views of the gunman.
“There is great anger in our country caused in part by inaccurate and even fraudulent reporting of the news,” Trump tweeted Monday, again calling the media “the true enemy of the people.”
Those very public words help explain Trump’s mindset, according to people who have spoken to him, who say his fury is out in the open for all to see.
Trump has said repeatedly he’s committed to helping the nation heal its deep political schisms. Yet he’s refused to acknowledge the role his own speech has played in the national divide.
At the first White House briefing in 26 days, press secretary Sarah Sanders defended the President on Monday and insisted he was being treated unfairly. She also repeatedly maintained that Trump was elected by an overwhelming majority of Americans, not saying he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes.
That is a window into Trump reality – how he sees things takes precedence over what actually happened.
The President also believes the pipe bomber, along with the synagogue mass shooting, is slowing Republican momentum in the final week of the midterm election campaign. That is one of the reasons, aides said, he is making an unprecedented investment for a sitting president: 11 rallies in six days.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a midterm election or not, the President’s going to fight back,” Sanders said. “The President is going to defend himself.”
The massacre widened a national debate over the President’s divisive style started earlier in the week, when a fervent Trump supporter sent pipe bombs through the mail to people the President criticized. The angry and at times violent messages Trump espouses on his Twitter feed and during his campaign rallies led to accusations he was fomenting those impulses in his followers.
It’s an accusation that has infuriated the President, causing him to lash out in ways that only hardened the view that his words are mismatched for a somber national moment.
Even aides who, in the past, have privately pushed back when Trump labels the news media the “enemy of the people” have this week agreed with his sentiments, arguing that no matter what the President does, the mainstream press won’t be satisfied.
That’s led to a new level of combativeness, even as the country reels from hate attacks. And it’s negated the President’s weekend attempts at reconciliation, which were swiftly followed by rote political attacks and grievance-filled rants.
“You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country,” Sanders said. “He got elected by an overwhelming majority of 63 million Americans, who came out and supported him and wanted to see his policies enacted. He’s delivered on that. He’s delivered on the promises he’s made.
“If anything, I think it is sad and divisive, the way that every single thing that comes out of the media – 90% of what comes out of the media’s mouth – is negative about this president,” she said, her tone having shifted from a tearful response to the Pittsburgh shooting to indignant criticism of the assembled reporters.
She discarded concerns at the President’s plans to continue politicking ahead of the midterm elections, despite the fraught national moment.
“The President is going to continue to draw contrasts, particularly as we go into the final days of an election, the differences between the two parties, particularly on policy differences,” she said.
The disconnect between Trump’s rhetorical style and the traditional parameters of his job isn’t mere coincidence. He ran vowing to dispense with the politically correct restraints of the past and has upheld that promise steadfastly. Even in moments of mourning, the President has downplayed the role a president can play in providing the country a moral or emotional grounding.
‘He’s my President’
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 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 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 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,” Sanders said.
Already, some Republicans have expressed concern that Trump’s antagonistic campaign style will be aired on a split screen with expected funerals for shooting victims later this week. Trump plans an aggressive schedule of rallies ahead of next week’s vote.
Trump, meanwhile, has fretted that coverage of the mail bombings could distract from his midterm closing argument, which was built on dire warnings of a group of migrants seeking entry into the United States. Originally, Trump planned a major address on immigration this week, including the signing of a presidential proclamation that would prevent most, if not all, members of the group of migrants in Mexico heading toward the US from crossing the border.
There are now discussions in the White House about delaying the planned immigration moves, a step that would be sure to frustrate Trump, who complained last week that the pipe bomb attempts distracted from an announcement on lowering drug prices.