MURPHYSBORO, Ill. — President Trump condemned a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue as an “evil anti-Semitic attack” Saturday, but said he chose to attend a political rally because to cancel would make these “sick, demented people important.”

Speaking to a massive, cheering crowd at an airport hangar in southern Illinois, Trump said “the hearts of all Americans are filled with grief, following the monstrous killing.” He also said the shooting was “an assault on all of us.”

Trump told reporters before the rally that he would travel to Pittsburgh, though he did not offer details. He also sought to distance himself from the man arrested in the shooting, calling him “sick” and saying “he was no supporter of mine.”

With less than two weeks before elections for control of Congress, the shooting followed a tense week dominated by a mail bomb plot with apparent political motivations and served as another toxic reminder of a divided nation. It again underscored Trump’s reluctance to step into the role of national unifier at tense moments.

Trump promised to change his tone for the Saturday night rally given the events of the day.

At an event with young farmers in the afternoon, Trump talked agriculture and bemoaned the attack, but he also stumped for candidates, took shots at favorite Democratic targets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren and made jokes about his hair.

Earlier in the day, Trump speculated that the death toll would have been curbed if an armed guard had been in the building. With both the number of deaths and details of the synagogue’s security still to be disclosed, Trump said gun control “has little to do with it” but “if they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.”

Trump offered an unsparing denunciation of anti-Semitism, which he said was the motive behind the attack, in contrast to remarks after clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville last year. Then, he only inflamed tensions by blaming both sides for the violence.

Speaking to young farmers in Indianapolis, Trump called on the country to come together, before inviting a pastor and rabbi on stage to pray.

“A lot of people killed,” Trump said upon his arrival in Indiana. “A lot of people very badly wounded.” He said the attack “looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime” and “there must be no tolerance for anti-Semitism in America.”

But the attack did not persuade him that tighter gun controls are needed.

“This is a case where, if they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop him immediately,” Trump said. “Maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly. So it’s a very, very – a very difficult situation.”

In previous mass shootings, Trump has at times said he would consider tightening gun laws but in the main has called for more armed guards in places such as schools.

“The world is a violent world,” he said before his speech. “And you think when you’re over it, it just sort of goes away, but then it comes back in the form of a madman, a wacko. … They had a maniac walk in and they didn’t have any protection and that is just so sad to see, so sad to see.”

Trump said lawmakers “should very much bring the death penalty into vogue” and people who kill in places such as synagogues and churches “really should suffer the ultimate price.”

filed under: