Pittsburgh, Oct 28 (AP/UNB) — During the week, anyone who wanted to get inside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue had to ring the doorbell and be granted entry by staff because the front door was kept locked. Not so on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath — when the building was open for worship.
A gunman who had expressed hatred of Jews exploited that vulnerability, so common in so many houses of worship across the country, in a singularly horrific way.
Armed with a rifle and three handguns, Robert Bowers walked inside the synagogue during Saturday morning worship and began shooting, killing 11 and wounding six before police took him into custody, officials said. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, according to the leader of the Anti-Defamation League.
Bowers traded gunfire with police and was shot multiple times but survived. He was charged late Saturday with 29 federal counts, including weapons offenses and hate crimes. Law enforcement officials planned to discuss the massacre at a news conference Sunday morning.
Four police officers were among the wounded.
The nation's latest mass shooting drew condemnation and expressions of sympathy from politicians and religious leaders of all stripes. With the midterm election just over a week away, it also reignited a longstanding and bitter debate over guns. President Donald Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue "had some kind of protection" from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, up for re-election, noted that once again "dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."
Calling the shooting an "evil anti-Semitic attack," Trump ordered flags at federal buildings throughout the U.S. to be flown at half-staff in respect for the victims. He said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh, but offered no details.
In the city, thousands gathered for a vigil Saturday night. Some blamed the slaughter on the nation's political climate.
"When you spew hate speech, people act on it. Very simple. And this is the result. A lot of people dead. Senselessly," said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, which rents space at Tree of Life.
The shooting raised immediate alarm in Jewish communities around the country. Authorities in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and other cities sent extra patrols to synagogues and other houses of worship.
Little was known about Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record but who is believed to have expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on social media. Authorities said it appears he acted alone.
Worshippers "were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith," said Bob Jones, head of the FBI's Pittsburgh office, though he cautioned the shooter's full motive was not yet known.
Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, pledged that "justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe."
It wasn't clear if Bowers had an attorney to speak on his behalf.
The gunman targeted a building that housed three separate congregations, all of which were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.
The synagogue door was unlocked on the Sabbath "because people are coming for services, and the bell would be ringing constantly. So they do not lock the door, and anybody can just walk in," said Marilyn Honigsberg, administrative assistant for New Light. "And that's what this man did."
Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life, said synagogue officials had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.
"You know, you're always worried that something would happen," said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light. Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday's service.
"But you never dream that it would happen like this," Snider added. "Just never ever dream that it would happen like this."
Zachary Weiss, 26, said his father, 60-year-old Stephen Weiss, was inside the synagogue but was unharmed. Weiss said his father told him that he and Tree of Life's rabbi helped congregants take shelter and follow the active shooter response training they'd received months earlier. Stephen Weiss made it out of the building and used a janitor's cellphone to call his family at home.
The attack, his son vowed, "will not define our congregation and will not define our city."
Pittsburgh, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — A shooter opened fire during a baby naming ceremony at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, killing several people and wounding six others including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. A law enforcement official identified the suspect as Robert Bowers and said he is in his 40s. The official wasn't authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Police said "several" people were killed. Six were wounded, including the four police officers, said Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director.
"It is a very horrific crime scene. It was one of the worst that I've seen. It is very bad," Hissrich said.
The attack took place during a baby naming ceremony, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It was unknown whether the attack harmed the baby.
The synagogue is located at the intersection of Wilkins and Shady avenues. The tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, is the hub of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.
At least until the suspect was taken into custody, the neighborhood and all synagogues in the city were in a lockdown, with people ordered to remain indoors.
President Donald Trump called the shooting "far more devastating than anyone thought," saying "it's a terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country."
But Trump said the outcome would have been different if the synagogue had an armed guard.
"They didn't have any protection," he told reporters at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
Offering a different take, Pennsylvania Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, called the shooting an "absolute tragedy" in a statement that made reference to calls for tighter gun control laws.
"We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life," Wolf said. "But we have been saying "this one is too many" for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm's way."
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder called the shooting "an attack not just on the Jewish community, but on America as a whole."
In 2010, Tree of Life Congregation — founded more than 150 years ago — merged with Or L'Simcha to form Tree of Life (asterisk) Or L'Simcha.
The synagogue is a fortress-like concrete building, its facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God's law, the "life cycle" and "how human-beings should care for the earth and one another," according to its website. Among its treasures is a "Holocaust Torah," rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 guests.
Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done "lots of training on things like active shooters, and we've looked at hardening facilities as much as possible."
"This should not be happening, period," he told reporters at the scene. "This should not be happening in a synagogue."
Just three days before the shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a column on the congregation's website, noting that people make time to attend funerals, but not for life's happy occasions.
"There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting," Myers wrote on Wednesday. "The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The correct answer is wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened."
Myers ended his column with words that now seem all too prescient.
"We value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking our leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is 'nor oyf simches' - only for s'machot," Myers wrote. "While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous events. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!"
Washington, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — A battle is brewing between the Trump administration and some of the president's biggest supporters in Congress who are concerned that sanctions to be re-imposed on Iran early next month won't be tough enough.
As President Donald Trump prepares to re-impose a second batch of Iran sanctions that had been eased under the 2015 nuclear deal, conservative lawmakers and outside advisers have become worried that the administration may break a promise to exert "maximum pressure" on Iran. They are angered by suggestions that measures to be announced Nov. 5 won't include a provision cutting Iran off from a key component of the global financial system.
The self-described Iran hawks are concerned enough that they have drafted legislation that would require the administration to demand that Iran be suspended from the international bank transfer system known as SWIFT.
"The president asked for maximum pressure, not semi-maximum pressure," said Richard Goldberg, a former aide to a Republican senator and senior adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a group that supports punishing Iran with sanctions. "Maximum pressure includes disconnecting Iranian banks from SWIFT."
Trump pledged Thursday to do whatever it takes to pressure Iran to halt what he refers to as its "malign conduct" such as nuclear and missile development and support for terrorism and groups that destabilize the Middle East.
"On Nov. 5th, all U.S. sanctions against Iran lifted by the nuclear deal will be back in full force," he told a gathering at the White House to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the 1983 attack on the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which is blamed on Iranian-backed extremists. "And they will be followed up with even more sanctions to address the full range of Iran's malign conduct. We will not allow the world's leading sponsor of terror to develop the world's deadliest weapons. Will not happen."
The Nov. 5 sanctions cover Iran's banking and energy sectors and will reinstate penalties for countries and companies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere that do not halt Iranian oil imports. They could also include measures to force Iran out of SWIFT.
Despite Trump's tough stance, the hawks are worried about recent comments from Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and his staff that suggest Iran will be able to stay connected to SWIFT. They are also concerned the administration will back down on its stated zero-tolerance policy for Iranian oil purchases by granting waivers to certain countries and companies that do not fully stop buying it.
Iran deal supporters, like the other parties to the agreement, argue that pushing Iran out of SWIFT, the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, will lead to the creation of alternate mechanisms that could supplant it as the leading global institution for financial institutions to send and receive information about banking transactions. They also say expulsion will make it harder for Iran to conduct transactions, such as humanitarian purchases, that will still be allowed after Nov. 5.
Allowing Iran to remain in SWIFT would make it easier for Tehran to import humanitarian goods like medicine permitted under U.S. sanctions and "would help the United States make clear that its critique of Iran is directed at the regime, not the people of Iran," said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury official now with the Center for a New American Security. She added, though, that disconnection would be a "fast track" to isolation.
The debate underscores the challenges the administration faces as it tries to isolate Iran without the full backing of other world powers who remain supportive of the nuclear deal.
Although the hawks had been pleased by Trump's decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in May and cheered the August re-imposition of an initial set of sanctions, they are now seething that Treasury may opt to use existing safeguards to isolate Iran instead of hitting SWIFT members with sanctions if they don't disconnect Tehran.
Treasury has been coy about its intentions, saying only that Mnuchin and the agency have led "an intense economic pressure campaign against Iran as part of this administration's comprehensive strategy to address the totality of Iran's malign and destabilizing activity, with much more to come."
"Treasury has made it very clear that we will continue to cut off bad Iranian actors, including designated banks, from accessing the international financial system in a number of different ways," it said. "We will also take action against those attempting to conduct prohibited transactions with sanctioned Iranian entities regardless of the mechanisms used."
That less-than-categorical position has rallied the hawks around the legislation prepared by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that would require the administration to impose sanctions on SWIFT members, including some U.S. banks, should it not suspend Iran on its own.
Federal law currently gives the administration authority to act against Iran's central bank and other banks covered by terrorism and money laundering sanctions. Cruz's legislation, however, would authorize the administration to hit all of Iran's banks with sanctions and require it to act against SWIFT if it connects any Iranian bank under sanctions to its system, according to a copy seen by the AP.
In August, Cruz led a group of 16 GOP senators, including Trump Republican allies Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming, in demanding action against SWIFT if Iran is not suspended. Congressional aides say they believe support for his proposed legislation will be strong. "The administration's maximum pressure campaign will not succeed if the Islamic Republic remains connected to SWIFT," the senators told Mnuchin.
Charlotte, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump lectured the media at length on Friday evening, accusing reporters of trying "to use the sinister actions of one individual to score political points" against him hours after police apprehended a staunch supporter of his in connection with the mail-bomb scare targeting Democrats and CNN.
Trump was campaigning in Charlotte, North Carolina, to support two GOP candidates facing close races in the state.
Trump has been on a rally blitz, hoping to help vulnerable Republicans ahead of the Nov. 6 elections that will determine which party controls Congress. He's planning at least 10 rallies over the five-day stretch before Election Day.
Trump, who held back some of his usual name-calling at a rally in Wisconsin earlier this week, was back to his usual attack lines Friday evening even as he called for an end to the "politics of personal destruction."
Not long after, he referred to his 2016 opponent as "Crooked Hillary Clinton," prompting a round of "Lock her up!" chants.
Clinton was among the frequent Trump targets sent pipe bombs this week.
"Oh boy, they're going to be reporting about you tonight," Trump joked in response. The crowd also broke into frequent chants of "CNN sucks!"
Also earning a mention: California Rep. Maxine Waters, another frequent Trump target who was sent a package.
Trump had told reporters as he left Washington that he had no plans to tone down his rhetoric, adding: "I could really tone it up. Because, as you know, the media has been extremely unfair to me and to the Republican Party."
Detroit, Oct 27 (AP/UNB) — Former President Barack Obama criticized President Donald Trump's tenure in office Friday in fiery speeches in Milwaukee and Detroit that took aim at him and other Republicans for "making stuff up."
The speeches were among Obama's sharpest and most direct takedowns of Trump's presidency, although the former president was careful to not mention Trump by name. He said the "character of our country is on the ballot" in the first midterm election since Trump took office.
Obama cited a recent Trump comment that he would pass a tax cut before the November election. Obama then told the crowds in high school gymnasiums that "Congress isn't even in session before the election! He just makes it up!"
At one point Obama said in Wisconsin: "Here's the thing. Everything I say you can look up."
Obama's visits were to urge people to vote for Michigan and Wisconsin's Democratic candidates. While Trump was frequently the target of his criticism, he did not spare Republicans generally and said they are lying when they say they want to protect people with pre-existing conditions while trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"What we have not seen before in our public life is politicians just blatantly, repeatedly, baldly, shamelessly, lying. Just making stuff up," Obama said. "Calling up, down. Calling black, white. That's what your governor is doing with these ads, just making stuff up," he said, referring to Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his assertions that he wants to protect health care for those with pre-existing conditions. Walker is being challenged by Democrat Tony Evers.
In Michigan, Obama credited Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer for helping to expand Medicaid and said "few people fought against it harder" than her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Bill Schuette. He said voters can trust Sen. Debbie Stabenow to protect people with pre-existing conditions because "she was there" to help pass his health law. She is facing a challenge from Republican John James, whom Obama criticized for saying he backs Trump's agenda "2,000 percent."
Obama used the subject of Hillary Clinton's private email server to accuse Republicans of trying to "scare the heck out of people before every election" and also to mock Trump about the Chinese spying on his cellphone.
"In the last election, it was Hillary's emails. 'This is terrible' ... 'This is a national security crisis.' They didn't care about emails and you know how you know? Because if they did, they'd be up in arms right now that the Chinese are listening to the president's iPhone that he leaves in his golf cart."
Obama spoke about the slow-moving migrant caravan from Central American bound for the United States as another example of a Republican scare tactic.
"Now the latest, they're trying to convince everybody to be afraid of a bunch of impoverished, malnourished refugees a thousand miles away," he said. "That's the thing that is the most important thing in this election," he said. "Not health care, not whether or not folks are able to retire, doing something about higher wages, rebuilding our roads and bridges and putting people back to work."
"Suddenly," he continued, changing his voice to a high-pitch to strike a mocking tone, "it's these group of folks. We don't even know where they are. They're right down there."
Referring to Trump's promise to "drain the swamp," Obama said that instead "they have gone to Washington and just plundered away."
"In Washington they have racked up enough indictments to field a football team," he said. "Nobody in my administration got indicted."
Obama's visit to Milwaukee was the first time he was in the city for a political event since March 2016, when he came to celebrate enrollment numbers in the Affordable Care Act. He did not campaign for Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, a state she narrowly lost that proved crucial to Trump becoming president.
Michigan is another battleground state in the Midwest that Democrats lost in 2016, despite Obama's visit the day before the election.
"I'm hopeful Michigan," he said. "I'm hopeful that despite all the noise, despite all the lies, we're going to come through all that. We're going to remember who we are, who we're called to be. I'm hopeful because out of this political darkness, I'm seeing a great awakening."