Trump returns to campaign trail after Pittsburgh trip sparks controversy
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Trump returns to campaign trail after Pittsburgh trip sparks controversy

US president ramps up rhetoric against immigration and ‘fake news’ following visit to site of synagogue massacre met with protests

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, accompanied by Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, place stones and flowers on a memorial as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Donald Trump plunged Wednesday into the final campaign stretch ahead of midterm elections after struggling to fend off accusations that his bitter anti-immigrant rhetoric helped prime the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Trump was headed to Florida to hold the first of 11 rallies across eight states ahead of next Tuesday’s polls.

He hopes to fire up core Republican voters in the party’s attempt to retain dominance of both chambers of Congress, with Democrats threatening to light a fire under Trump’s feet if they win even partial control.

But getting back on the road among raucous, adoring supporters will also give the president a chance to retool the narrative, following his uncomfortable visit Tuesday to the site of the Pittsburgh mass shooting.

Accompanied by his wife Melania, Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, Trump played the traditional presidential role of healer-in-chief at the Tree of Life synagogue, where an anti-Semitic fanatic gunned down 11 people last week.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump walk past a memorial, as Jared Kushner (2nd L) and Ivanka Trump (L) speak with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, as they pay their respects at the Tree of Life Synagogue following last weekend’s shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 30, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Somber and attentive, Trump laid memorial stones and spent more than an hour at a nearby hospital with the widow of one of the slain.

The experience was “very humbling and very sad,” Trump said.

But a political firestorm raged around the visit, which opponents and noisy groups of local protesters said shouldn’t have taken place, given allegations that Trump’s divisive and often violent rhetoric about immigration inspired the shooter.

An estimated 4,000 people gathered to march for solidarity in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood while US President Donald Trump was visiting on October 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

Starkly illustrating the controversy, there wasn’t anyone available, beyond the local air force base commander and his wife, to meet the president on arrival from Washington.

Usually on presidential trips, a greeting line of officials and supporters awaits Air Force One on the tarmac.

Pittsburgh’s mayor was among those who suggested that Trump stay away.

Brushing off, doubling down

The White House was put on the defensive, with spokeswoman Sarah Sanders pointing out that Trump “was also asked to come by some.”

“The president wanted to show his respect on behalf of the entire country and to represent the country in this moment,” she said.

By Wednesday, however, Trump was back to his typical self-confidence, dismissing criticism and showing that he has no intention of backing off from the ever-growing focus on immigrants.

“Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh,” Trump tweeted. “Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”

People protesting against US President Donald Trump wait near the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

He then explored his latest eye-catching plan for curtailing immigration: removal of a constitutionally protected right to citizenship for anyone born on US soil.

The automatic right, which is also given in neighboring Canada and Mexico, has been criticized as outmoded, providing a loophole for the children of illegal immigrants.

However, the nature and timing of Trump’s proposal — first aired Tuesday — has been controversial, particularly given his insistence that he can personally overrule something protected by the constitution.

He certainly wasn’t apologizing on Wednesday.

“The World is using our laws to our detriment. They laugh at the Stupidity they see!” he tweeted.

The president has previously painted illegal immigrants — mostly poor Central Americans — as “thugs,” “rapists” and an “invasion” force. Last week he ordered more than 5,000 regular troops to the Mexican border.

In the final splurge of rallies, the rhetoric is only likely to heat up further.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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