Trump's visit stirs debate as Pittsburgh mourns after mass shooting in synagogue
Prosecutors expected to seek death penalty for accused gunman Robert Gregory Bowers
The man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was brought into court in a wheelchair Monday, as some members of the Jewish community and others objected to U.S. President Donald Trump's plans to visit, accusing him of contributing to a toxic political climate in the U.S. that might have led to the bloodshed.
The alleged gunman, 46-year-old truck driver Robert Gregory Bowers, was released from the hospital where he was treated for wounds suffered in a gun battle with police. Hours later he was wheeled into a downtown federal courtroom in handcuffs to face charges.
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With the first funerals set for Tuesday, the White House announced that Trump and his wife Melania Trump will visit the same day to "express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community" over the 11 congregants killed Saturday in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Some Pittsburghers urged Trump to stay away.
"His language has encouraged hatred and fear of immigrants, which is part of the reason why these people were killed," said Marianne Novy, 73, a retired college English professor who lives in the city's Squirrel Hill section, the historic Jewish neighbourhood where the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue took place.
Possible death penalty
A judge ordered him held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case. He did not enter a plea.
During the brief proceeding, Bowers talked with two court-appointed lawyers and said little more than "yes" in a soft voice a few times in response to routine questions from the judge. Courtroom deputies freed one of his cuffed hands so he could sign paperwork.
He was expressionless.
"It was not the face of villainy that I thought we'd see," said Jon Pushinsky, a congregant who was in court for the hearing.
Federal prosecutors are pressing for the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the attack and later told police, "I just want to kill Jews" and "All these Jews need to die."
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called the shootings "horrific acts of violence" and added: "Rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done."
The weekend massacre — which took place 10 days before the mid-term elections — heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.
The mail bombs and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political atmosphere in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame because of his combative language.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, said the White House should contact the victims' families and ask them if they want the president to come. He also warned Trump to stay away when the first funerals are held.
"If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead," Peduto said. "Our attention and our focus is going to be on them, and we don't have public safety that we can take away from what is needed in order to do both."
The White House did not immediately respond to the mayor's request. Asked if Trump has done enough to condemn white nationalism, spokesperson Sarah Sanders said he has "denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms on a number of occasions."
Some looked forward to the president's visit.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said that Trump is "certainly welcome."
"I am a citizen. He is my president," Myers told CNN.
But Barry Werber, 76, who hid in a dark storage closet as the gunman rampaged through the synagogue, said he doesn't want Trump to come to Pittsburgh. He said Trump is trying to "instigate his base," and "bigots are coming out of the woodwork."
Kristin Wessell, a homemaker who lives near Squirrel Hill, also said Trump should steer clear of Pittsburgh, to let the victims' families "grieve how they see fit."
"I feel a lot of his comments are very much dog whistles to nationalists and white supremacists and racists. So, yeah, I do place part of the blame on this on him," said Wessell, a Democrat, who was passing out bouquets to passersby across the street from a kosher grocery store. "Anti-Semitism has always existed. But I feel like he is giving cover to people to be more blatant about it. And to be more violent about it, rather than trying to calm and heal."
The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.
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Bowers was charged with offences that included causing death while obstructing a person's right to the free exercise of religion — a hate crime — and using a gun to commit murder. He was also charged under state law with criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
The president of the hospital where a wounded Bowers was taken said that he was ranting against Jews even as Jewish staff members were treating him.
"He's taken into my hospital and he's shouting, 'I want to kill all the Jews!' and the first three people who are taking care of him are Jewish," Jeffrey Cohen of Allegheny General Hospital told ABC's Good Morning America.
"Ain't that a kick in the pants?"
Cohen, who is also Jewish and a member of Tree of Life synagogue, said he stopped by Bowers' room.
"I just asked how he was doing, was he in pain, and he said no, he was fine," Cohen said. "He asked who I was, and I said, 'I'm Dr. Cohen, the president of the hospital,' and I turned around and left."
He said the FBI agent outside Bowers' room told him he didn't think he could have done that. "And I said, 'If you were in my shoes I'm sure you could have,"' Cohen said.
Just minutes before the synagogue attack, Bowers apparently took to social media to rage against HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees under contract with the U.S. government.
"HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people," he is believed to have written on Gab.com, a social media site favoured by right-wing extremists. "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
HIAS had recently weighed in on the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. from Central America, urging the Trump administration to "provide all asylum seekers the opportunity to present their claims as required by law." The president has vilified the caravan and pledged to stop the migrants.
One of the targets of the mail bomb attacks last week was liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by far-right conspiracy theorists of paying migrants to join the caravan.
Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, authorities said. Little else was known about the suspect, who had no apparent criminal record.