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Politics & Government

City Prepares For Trump Visit, With Partisan Feelings Already High

President Donald Trump is set to speak at the Shale Insight Conference later this afternoon – although his presence is already being felt hours in advance. A number of protests were planned ahead of his arrival, starting with an 8:30 a.m. 

“Solidarity Defeats White Nationalism” rally at Gateway Center, while local Republican party leaders seek to turn out their supporters by having them think of Trump's appearance as a rally.

*This post was updated at 3:20 p.m. to include more information and will continue to be updated. 

Police were also making their presence known early Wednesday. The "Solidarity" protest promptly drew a contingent of officers in riot gear, as dozens of demonstrators decried Trump's return to the city just days before the first anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting, which authorities say was motivated by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Addressing Trump and his own anti-immigrant policies in absentia, demonstrator Tammy Hepps said "You had a year to change your ways. Instead you doubled down on the lies and rhetoric that incited the violence in our city."

Officers told protesters to clear the streets and allow traffic through. After protesters refused to do so -- singing "We Shall Not Be Moved" instead -- officers took roughly a dozen of them into custody, one by one. 

Less contentious was a noon demonstration at Point State Park, where scores of demonstrators observed a Native American water ceremony, during which participants were sprinkled with water shaken from a feather. 

"It's important that we protect the environment," said Lawrenceville resident John Ladue after the ceremony. He said that Trump was just the symptom of a larger concern. "Capitalism is exploiting the environment to the detriment of the people and the planet and if something isn’t down about it soon, the changes will be irreparable."

But others turned out on Downtown's streets to support Trump. Among them was Nick Wells, who said he was a veteran and a student at Triangle Tech. He said Trump had improved health care for servicepeople, and said people should “support our president because he’s our president whether you like him or not.”

Caleb Cyphers, who was visiting the city from the Lehigh Valley, had a less conciliatory message. He said he didn’t vote at all in 2016, but would support Trump next year. “I like how he pisses everybody off,” he said.

Security measures around the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which is where the conference is being held, were apparent. Coast Guard boats patrolled the Allegheny River, while street closures continue along the 10th Street Bypass, Fort Duquesne Boulevard and 11th Street.  The closures are expected to remain in place through the afternoon, and traffic on the Parkway West will also be disrupted as the presidential motorcade takes Trump to and from airport.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Fourteen environmental, nonprofit and political groups hosted events all day in response to Trump’s visit to the Shale insight conference. At noon in Point State Park the public was invited to stand in solidarity with members of the Lakota, Seneca, Sioux and other Native and faith leaders.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday evening, a senior White House official noted that Trump had spoken to the same convention in 2016, and predicted Trump would speak about "how he made a lot of promises at this [conference] in 2016 as a candidate, and then ... almost three years later, he'll be addressing the promises he kept on that front."

Trump's 2016 speech focused heavily on his pledge to pursue a deregulatory agenda, and in many ways his administration has followed through, setting aside environmental protection rules and withdrawing from a global treaty focused on addressing climate change.

Going into 2020, Trump's re-election hopes depend on convincing voters that those policies deserve credit for the long-running economic expansion. Unemployment rates in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere are at or near-historic lows. And domestic energy production, particularly from fossil fuels, has clearly increased during Trump’s presidency. The government predicted Wednesday that the United States would export more energy than it imports this year – the first time in over a half-century that has happened, though spikes in natural gas production in particular were underway before he became president. The U.S. now out-produces top rivals Saudi Arabia and Russia in the production of oil and natural gas. In a press call with reporters Monday, administration officials touted a number of byproducts of that success, noting that oil prices remained steady even after a missile strike on Saudi Arabian oil centers.

But in a lunchtime press call with reporters prior to Trump’s arrival, Democrats sought to counterprogram Trump’s theme by insisting that many of his promises had been broken.

Residents “deserve a lot more than endless broken promises that Donald Trump and Mike Pence ... have promised,” said state Rep. Austin Davis, who represents McKeesport and other areas of the Monongahela Valley. “If we want to be disappointed, we’ll watch the Steelers or the Eagles.”

“He keeps talking about this economy as if we aren’t paying attention, as if we can’t see with our own two eyes that it’s not working for everyone.”

Critics, and some economists, say there is broader economic trouble on the horizon that may affect even the energy industry itself. Growth in manufacturing has lagged, especially in Pennsylvania, which lost 8,000 manufacturing jobs in the past year according to federal statistics. Even steel, an industry that Trump has put front and center of his trade and economic policy, has lagged after a burst of optimism early in his term. The effect of his tariffs on steel imports has proven decidedly mixed in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere, since some mills rely on imports for unfinished slabs. Should demand for steel continue to lag, that could hurt demand for the metallurgical coal used to make it – which could wipe out modest gains made in mining employment that have done little to reverse the industry’s long-term decline. And much of that decline can be attributed to the rise of natural gas.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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The crowd marched through the park and a Native Water Ceremony was held near the fountain performed by indigenous leader Cheryl Angel. After the ceremony the crowd was invited to march down Liberty Avenue at 1 p.m., followed by a rally outside of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the state AFL-CIO, told reporters on the Democratic press call that it was “insulting” that Trump came to Pittsburgh. While he didn’t contest that there had been growth in the natural gas business, “He’s abandoned other sectors of the energy industry,” citing flat-lined employment in coal mining, and the pending shutdown of Beaver County’s Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant next month.  

Trump’s visit comes on the heels of revelations that are ratcheting up pressure, and possible impeachment, in Washington D.C. On Tuesday, diplomat William Taylor reportedly told Congressional representatives in a closed-door session that he had been told that Trump would withhold military aid to Ukraine, unless and until the country’s president publicly announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 campaign rival.

The White House and Congressional Republicans played down Taylor’s testimony, arguing that much of it was based on second-hand information. But Democrats said his testimony, reportedly backed up with copious written notes Taylor took at the time, provided some of the strongest evidence yet that Trump had tied the aid –financed by taxpayers and authorized by Congress – to a quid pro quo designed to improve his re-election prospects.

Today's visit is being billed as an official White House event, rather than a campaign stop. But as his previous visit to celebrate the region’s natural-gas industry showed last month, Trump blurs such distinctions freely – often to the consternation of ethic groups.

Wednesday’s visit began to stir partisan passions a full two days before Trump arrived, when activists on social media circulated an email sent from the Republican Committee of Allegheny County to committee members.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Environmental groups and Native American tribe members gathered in Point State Park on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, where they performed a Native Water Ceremony.

“While this was originally just him giving the Keynote Address to those in attendance for the conference, with SWPA being such a crucial area for the President’s re-elect, he wants to host a rally for you as well! And he asked us to be sure to invite you to this Rally!” the email read. “If you would like to attend the rally, you MUST register for a ticket by clicking the link below. … DO NOT POST THIS LINK TO SOCIAL MEDIA.”

RCAC chair Sam DeMarco says that despite the email’s tone, the RCAC was not actually passing along a message from the President. “There was no communication from the White House at all,” he said. “The shale conference reached out to us and said they were opening it up to the public.” He said the goal was to show support for Trump. “Maybe we shouldn’t have said ‘rally,’” he said.

Officials with Shale Insight confirmed that they notified a number of interested groups that Trump would be speaking at the conference. But they noted that early press materials said Trump’s appearance could be viewed by “the general public” along with conference attendees and guests, and noted the conference home page offered a publicly available link, labeled “Presidential Keynote Address General Admission Registration” to an Eventbrite page that indicated admission was free. The page also makes clear that attendees will not be allowed to bring signs into the event.

Did local Democrats get the same heads-up? “Absolutely not,” said Eileen Kelly, who chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

90.5 WESA's Lucy Perkins contributed to this story.