President Donald Trump on Saturday said that a fatal shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue earlier in the day has proved to be “far more devastating” than local officials initially feared, as authorities identified a suspect held in custody.
“It looks like the results are coming in, and they’re far more devastating than anybody originally thought in the morning,” the president told reporters at a news conference at Joint Base Andrews. “In the morning, they thought that it was a shooter, but they had the shooter, they soon would, but the results are very devastating. You’re seeing the numbers come in.”
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“It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world. And something has to be done,” Trump added.
The president suggested that armed guards inside the synagogue could have mitigated the extent of the violence, and advocated for capital punishment as the penalty for such crimes.
“This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect,” Trump said. “But if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation.”
He added: “I think they should stiffen up laws, and I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue.”
The president’s remarks on the tarmac en route to the Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis punctuated a week in which the tone of the national political discourse has been heavily scrutinized following a bomb-threat mail scare in which prominent Democrats were targeted by a fervent Trump supporter.
Pittsburgh-area law enforcement on Saturday morning responded to an active shooter situation at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in the city’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood, apprehending a suspect after “multiple casualties” were reported.
A law enforcement official has identified the suspect as Robert Bowers, according to the Associated Press. The official said Bowers was in his 40s.
Though an official death toll has not been released, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich confirmed at a news conference Saturday afternoon that the incident resulted in “multiple fatalities” and at least six injuries — including four injured law enforcement officers.
While the officers’ injuries “at this time are non-life-threatening,” Hissrich said, “the other individuals are critical and serious in nature.” The victims were transported to three trauma centers in the city, he said.
Hissrich said the suspected shooter was also taken to a hospital and that there “appears to be no active threat” to the community.
With the assistance of local, county and state law enforcement, the FBI is investigating the shooting as a hate crime, Hissrich said.
“It’s a very horrific crime scene,” he added. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen. And I’ve been on some plane crashes. It’s very bad.”
“This is shocking,” Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive of Allegheny County, told reporters. “These are our friends, these are our neighbors, and when this list of victims comes out, it’s going to be people that we know.”
Fitzgerald added: “When you say, ‘Hits close to home,’ that doesn’t even begin to say it.”
Shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday, Cmdr. Jason Lando provided reporters their first briefing on the shooting.
“A short time ago, we were dispatched to active gunfire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill,” he said. “Right now, we have multiple casualties and we’re working the situation.”
Lando added: “It is imperative that the neighbors in the community surrounding the Tree of Life Synagogue stay in their houses and shelter in place. Do not come out of your home right now. It is not safe. We’ll give you an update as soon as we get one.”
About 20 minutes later, Pittsburgh police spokesman Chris Togneri reported the shooter had been taken into custody, and three officers had been shot as they responded to the incident. Togneri said law enforcement were still in the process of clearing the building, and “trying to figure out if the situation is safe, if there are any more threats inside the building.”
As events developed, Trump tweeted: “Watching the events unfolding in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Law enforcement on the scene. People in Squirrel Hill area should remain sheltered. Looks like multiple fatalities. Beware of active shooter. God Bless All!”
Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter that he was monitoring reports of the shooting. “Praying for the fallen, the injured, all the families impacted, and our courageous first responders. God bless them all.”
Appearing later Saturday at an event in Las Vegas, Pence said that “there is no place in America for violence or antisemitism, and this evil must end.”
Ivanka Trump — who, along with her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, is Jewish — tweeted in response to the shooting that “America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and anti-semite.”
“All good Americans stand with the Jewish people to oppose acts of terror & share the horror, disgust & outrage over the massacre in Pittsburgh,” the president’s daughter wrote online. “We must unite against hatred & evil.”
First lady Melania Trump also tweeted: “My heart breaks over the news out of #Pittsburgh. The violence needs to stop. May God bless, guide & unite the United States of America.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on Saturday condemned the attack, and in a statement said it “sends its deepest sympathies to the victims and families of those who were callously murdered.”
The museum also said it “reminds all Americans of the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism which must be confronted wherever they appear and calls on all Americans to actively work to promote social solidarity and respect the dignity of all individuals.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf later confirmed on Twitter that the suspect was in custody, and said the state is “providing local first responders with whatever help they need.”
Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters Sunday that the results of a recent community study showed that more than half of the Jewish community of Greater Pittsburgh lives in or around Squirrel Hill.
“I’m just sad. I don’t know what to tell you,” Finkelstein said. “I just — my heart goes out to all these families. This should not be happening, period. It should not be happening in a synagogue. It should not be happening in our neighborhood here in Squirrel Hill,” according to a CNN report.
Finkelstein said he is not a member of the Tree of Life congregation, but estimated that dozens of people could have been inside the synagogue at the time of the shooting.
“It depends if there was some type of bar mitzvah or other special event, which would bring more people,” he said. “I would guess Tree of Life, a typical Saturday morning would have at that time of the morning maybe 50, 60 people.”