ORLANDO — Two months after 49 people were gunned down at Pulse night club, world leaders and regular citizens have piled photographs of victims, memorial crosses and flags showing support from around the world. And while the site has been visited by President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, candidate Hillary Clinton, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and even the out prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, it has never been visited by Donald Trump.
On Thursday, Trump spoke at an event just 10 miles away. But despite talking about Pulse on the campaign trail, he didn’t make the short trip to the memorial.
Instead he was at The American Renewal Project, a two-day event that featured church leaders and prominent anti-LGBT speakers, even while a steady stream of visitors on Friday went to the Pulse night club to commemorate the two-month anniversary of the tragedy.
Trump had come to town to speak with the controversial gathering of religious leaders, then headed to an evening rally, all without visiting the site. He talked about Pulse at that rally, and he’s frequently invoked the tragedy to attack Clinton, arguing he’s the better pick for LGBT voters.
“I’m angry,” said Erin Andersen, who lives in nearby Clermont and would go with friends to Pulse when it was still open. “When this is still so raw and so fresh, how dare you show up in our city speaking such hateful words when this community has done nothing but rally around each other and celebrate the LGBT community.”
The choice to even attend the same event where noted anti-LGBT speakers like Mat Staver, who defended Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis when she denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples, stunned many. Clinton visited Pulse in July, and Pelosi was at the night club the same day Trump met with spiritual leaders instead. “This discrimination seminar they are having out there with these so-called Westboro Baptist Church wannabe pastors is deplorable,” said Joanie Bigham, who lives in Palm Beach and has been to the Pulse three times since the June 12 shooting.
Trump having never visited the Pulse memorial hasn’t discouraged him from referencing the tragedy as part of his campaign. At Trump’s rally in Kissimmee, he once again said more people should have reported shooter Omar Mateen to the FBI: “People knew he was demented.” (The reality is a number of people did report Mateen, who was interviewed multiple times by the FBI.) In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Trump took to Twitter to ask the public to congratulate him "for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.“ Then he delivered a lengthy speech during which he claimed to be the true ally to LGBT people because he would ban Muslims from entering the U.S., a discriminatory policy he rationalized in part by claiming Muslims support murdering LGBT people. Trump has talked about Pulse in rallies ever since, claiming his reaction makes him a better LGBT ally than Clinton. He even referenced the theme during his biggest speech yet — at the Republican National Convention — when he promised that “As your president I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens.”
For attendees at The American Renewal Project, Trump was received hospitably. Pastors who were there for Trump’s remarks say he never discussed LGBT issues, and instead made a commitment to revisit the “Johnson Amendment,” a part of tax code dating back to 1954 that says churches cannot endorse or advocate the defeat of political candidates without risking tax-exempt status. Many were satisfied that he attended a closed-door meeting with faith leaders. “I actually was pretty surprised. He spoke from the heart and I really enjoyed it,” said Lanorakay Hass, whose husband Tim Hass is pastor of Cornerstone Assembly of God in Williston, Florida.
Trump did not raise LGBT related issues (though some attendees said he committed to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court). The same can’t be said for other speakers. Gloria Harp, a pastor at the Apostolic Church of Faith Acts and a Democrat, said others only espoused “what the Bible says.” And attendees made clear where they stood on LGBT rights. Fernando Pinto, the religious leader at Harvest Ministries in Orlando, was direct. “I do not consider two males or two female figures living together as a family, no matter how you put it,” he said.
Some Orlando residents, though, didn’t think it mattered whether Trump visited the church leaders or the Pulse. Santos Umanzon, an Orlando resident who right now has images of the 49 victims of the Pulse attack, said the real problem is Trump’s fealty, and Sen. Marco Rubio’s, to other special interests. “They are supported by the NRA,” he said. “They aren’t going to change anything.”