President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit Pennsylvania on Tuesday to commemorate the victims of last week's mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue, the White House announced Monday, even as the mayor of Pittsburgh publicly requested that the trip be postponed until after the funerals.
The White House announcement comes as tens of thousands of people have signed a petition calling for Trump to refrain from visiting the city until he denounces white nationalism.
At a regular briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president and first lady will make the visit to "express the support of the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community."
"This atrocity was a chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred and above all, it was an act of evil," Sanders said, adding that the president "cherishes the American Jewish community for everything it stands for and contributes to our country."
Saturday's massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue left 11 people dead and six wounded in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Suspected gunman Robert Bowers, who raged against Jewish people online and allegedly told police, "I just want to kill Jews," made his first court appearance on Monday. He faces more than 50 charges in connection with the mass shooting.
In remarks to reporters Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto asked the White House to consider "two important factors" before scheduling a visit: the will of the victims' families, and the fact that the city's attention - including the efforts of law enforcement officers - will be focused Tuesday on the victims' funerals, which are likely to begin that day.
"If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead. 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," Peduto said, according to a transcript of his remarks provided to The Washington Post.
City and civic officials said early Monday they were unaware of the details of the planned visits. There were concerns about logistics and whether police would be able to handle the presidential visit, the people said.
White House officials said earlier Monday that they were pushing the president to cancel a potential speech Tuesday on immigration and visit Pittsburgh instead. The president, who has four "Make America Great Again" rallies scheduled for later this week, is clamouring to get back on the campaign trail, they said.
In addition to Peduto's suggestion to choose another day, Trump also faces opposition from more than 30,000 people who have signed an open letter saying that the president will not be welcome in Pittsburgh until he denounces white nationalism and stops "targeting" minorities.
Asked about the letter, Sanders maintained that Trump "has denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms, on a number of occasions."
"We'll continue to do that; I'm doing it here today," she said. "And I would also say at the same time that some individuals, they're grieving. They're hurting. The president wants to be there to show the support of this administration for the Jewish community."
She noted that Tree of Life synagogue's rabbi, Jeffrey Myers, has said that Trump is "welcome" to visit.
At Monday's briefing, Sanders grew visibly emotional as she described Trump's family ties to Judaism, noting that several of the president's grandchildren, his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are Jewish. Kushner, she noted, is the descendant of Holocaust survivors.
Sanders also defended Trump amid criticism that he has stoked divisions by refusing to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric in the wake of Saturday's shooting and last week's mail bombs targeting more than a dozen Democrats.
"The very first thing that the president did was to condemn the attacks, both in Pittsburgh and in the pipe bombs," Sanders said. "The very first thing the media did was blame the president and make him responsible for these ridiculous acts."
She added: "You can't start putting the responsibility of individuals on anybody but the individual who carries out the crime."