By his own telling, President Donald Trump had a choice to make Saturday: cancel a planned campaign rally after 11 people were shot dead inside their synagogue, or maintain his stump schedule 10 days before the midterm elections.
He chose the latter, insisting to his raucous crowd of supporters in southern Illinois that scrapping his plans would have amounted to caving to a criminal. It was the second time in a week that Trump moved ahead with his campaign program, even amid acts of hateful terror that have left parts of the nation rattled and uneasy.
“This was a rough, rough day for all of us,” the President acknowledged as he took the stage inside an airplane hangar, uncharacteristically late after receiving briefings from counterterrorism officials aboard Air Force One.
“This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It’s an assault on humanity. It will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from the world,” Trump said. “The scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue.”
It was a forceful message that had sharpened over the course of the day. Trump’s first comments on the shooting, which came as he departed Washington for the Midwest, suggested the attack could have been prevented if the Pittsburgh synagogue had employed an armed guard.
By the time he reached his rally site, Trump was more pointed in his rhetoric, decrying the “poison” of anti-Semitism and calling for freer use of the death penalty to punish mass killers.
“We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism,” Trump went on, calling for Americans to unite in their rejection of violence that targets Jews for their religious faith.
Yet by their nature, Trump’s campaign rallies are not the place for unity or reconciliation. The red-hatted sea of supporters had not gathered inside Hangar 6 at the Southern Illinois Airport for talk of a national reckoning on hate. And the President, time and again, has shown little penchant for using his rallies for anything beyond stoking his political base.
Earlier in the day, Trump told reporters that he was weighing whether to cancel his rally. He decided against it, determining such a move would amount to giving the killer an edge. Instead, Trump compared his decision to host his campaign rally to reopening the New York Stock Exchange and fielding professional baseball games after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We can’t allow people like this to become important. When we change all of our lives to accommodate them, it’s not acceptable,” Trump said. “I don’t want to change our life for somebody that is sick and evil, and I don’t think we ever should.”
And so he didn’t, moving swiftly into a campaign speech that included insults lobbed at Democrats like California Rep. Maxine Waters, members of the media he deemed “foolish and very stupid people,” and the familiar “lock her up” chant about his vanquished 2016 rival Hillary Clinton – familiar targets for Trump, some of whom were on a list of those sent mail bombs this week.
On Friday morning, Trump referred in quotes to the bombs and lashed out against the media for what he said was false attribution of the bombs to his own rhetoric. After the arrest of the suspect, Cesar Sayoc, in Florida, Trump said the “terrorizing acts” had no place in the US.
“We must never allow political violence to take root in America,” he said. “I’m committed to doing everything in my power as President to stop it.”
Trump went on to hold a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday evening, and at the event, he continued to attack the media coverage of the bombs.
A law enforcement official said Sayoc was living in a van covered in stickers expressing support for Trump along with one that said “CNN sucks” and others featuring targets or crosshairs on prominent Democrats and figures critical of Trump.
The Saturday afternoon rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, followed a stop in Indianapolis, Indiana, for an agriculture convention and marked another of many campaign stops for the President as he seeks to boost Republicans with just days remaining until the midterm elections.
Trump initially signaled he might not use his hardest-hitting lines. He told reporters waiting at the bottom of the steps outside Air Force One that he would be more muted that his normal bombast, which he ascribed to fury at negative media coverage.
“I will have a very much different tone tonight,” Trump said. “And I’d have a much different tone, frankly, if the press was even-handed, if the press was fair. I’d have a much different tone all the time. But I’m fighting the media.”
But by the time he was in front of the crowd, Trump heard a different mandate from his audience.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down, just a little bit,” Trump said as he ended his explanation for keeping his schedule unchanged. “Is that okay?”
The crowd loudly shouted “no” together.
CNN’s Eli Watkins and Liz Stark contributed to this report.