President Donald Trump said Saturday that a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left at least 11 people dead could have been prevented with the help of an armed guard, and later called for “the vile hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism” to be confronted.
“This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil,” Trump said during the first of two stops in the Midwest on Saturday, adding that Americans should stand up to “any form of religious hatred or prejudice” in their communities.
It was somewhat of an about-face for a president who hours earlier told reporters that the nation’s gun laws had “little to do” with the shooting, and suggested that the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh should have had an armed guard on the premises. News reports indicated that the synagogue had been hosting a bris ceremony before the shooting took place.
“If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” Trump said. “This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect.”
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Four police officers were among the injured, according to Wendell D. Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director.
Initially, Trump, who abandoned calls for unity this week as bomb scares targeted prominent Democrats and a news organization, offered few words of comfort.
“Looks like multiple fatalities. Beware of active shooter. God Bless All!” he wrote on Twitter shortly after reports of the shooting.
But Trump, whose daughter Ivanka; son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and three grandchildren are Jewish, shifted tone during an afternoon appearance at the Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis after talking to Ivanka Trump and Kushner.
“Our minds cannot comprehend the cruel hate and the twisted malice that could cause a person to unleash such terrible violence during a baby-naming ceremony,” Trump said onstage. “This was a baby-naming ceremony at a sacred house of worship on the holy day of Sabbath.”
With 11 days to go until the midterm elections, the president at first wavered on whether to continue with his schedule Saturday. He briefly considered canceling a campaign rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, but seemed ready to move forward after a rabbi and pastor delivered prayers onstage at the farmers’ conference.
“We can’t let evil change our life,” Trump said, “and change our schedule.”
The president was scheduled to continue receiving briefings on the shooting throughout the day from Mike Burnett, a senior counterterrorism official, according to a statement from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
As the president expressed horror over the graphic nature of the killing, the Anti-Defamation League called on authorities to investigate the episode as a hate crime.
The president was not the only person in the Trump administration to hit the campaign trail after the shooting. Speaking at a rally in Las Vegas for Republican candidates running for office, Vice President Mike Pence made reference to the mass shooting at a country music festival there a year ago, which left 58 dead.
“As Las Vegas knows all too well, what happened in Pittsburgh today was not just criminal, it was evil,” he said. “An attack on innocent Americans and an assault on our freedom of religion.”
Pence, like the president, suggested that those responsible for such acts of violence should be given the death penalty.
“As the president said, anyone who does such a thing at a temple or a church should pay the ultimate price,” Pence said. “For now, we urge every American to pray.”
Several other Trump administration officials offered their sympathies on Twitter.
Describing herself as “saddened and appalled,” Sanders said, “We stand in total solidarity with the victims and all of the Jewish community against bigotry and hate.”
Melania Trump, the first lady, also called for unity: “The violence needs to stop. May God bless, guide & unite the United States of America.”
Across the country, politicians, most of them Democrats, disagreed with the president’s assertion that gun laws had little to do with the shooting.
“Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way,” said Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, adding that people should resist accepting “this violence as normal.”
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., whose district includes Pittsburgh, laid blame for the shooting at Congress’ feet.
“Disturbed people with hate in their heart and guns in their hands … a prescription for the horrific scene we are witnessing today … and Congress does nothing,” Doyle said on Twitter.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a frequent critic of Trump, called for “sane gun safety.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.