President Donald Trump jumped back into the roiling controversy over his response to a violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia as he decried the “foolish” removal of Confederate monuments and attacked two Republican senators who criticized him. In a series of tweets Thursday, Trump said it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” He wrote that history can’t be changed but “you can learn from it” and that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!” He also accused one Republican senator of a “disgusting lie” and plugged a primary opponent of another GOP critic.
“Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis & white supremacists and people like Ms. Heyer,’’ Trump said on Twitter. “Such a disgusting lie. He just can’t forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember!’’ He also called Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona “toxic.”
Trump’s defiant rebukes came as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to distance themselves from Trump’s remarks blaming both sides in the violence by issuing statements condemning white supremacy. Neither mentioned the president. None of the most senior GOP leaders in the House or Senate criticized Trump directly or called on him to repudiate his remarks. Graham, who faced the brunt of Trump’s anger on Thursday, said Wednesday that Trump was “dividing Americans, not healing them.’’
On Thursday, in response to Trump’s attack, Graham said in a statement, “Because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country. For the sake of our nation — as our president — please fix this.” “History is watching us all,” he added.
Trump said at a combative news conference on Tuesday that both sides were to blame for the violence and that there were “very fine people” on both sides, including among the neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups. He also accused what he called “alt-left” protesters of charging at the neo-Nazi groups with clubs.
The reluctance of GOP leaders to confront Trump directly is the latest sign they remain unwilling to challenge even the president’s most controversial remarks and comes despite growing concern among Republicans that their party’s brand could suffer permanent damage from the backlash.
It also stands in sharp contrast to the responses of multiple CEOs at large U.S. companies, several of whom publicly resigned from Trump’s business council in reaction to his remarks.
The highest-ranking party members to confront Trump were the House and Senate Republicans charged with delivering GOP majorities in the looming 2018 congressional elections.
Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told a town hall audience Tuesday that Trump’s remarks were “unacceptable” and that he “was wrong to do that.” Steve Stivers of Ohio, his House counterpart, tweeted, “I don’t understand what’s so hard about this.”
Graham said in a statement Wednesday that Trump’s comments were a “step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally” and people like slain counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Republican leaders have gotten used to ducking questions about Trump’s tweets and other pronouncements, saying they’re just trying to stay focused on delivering on major promises like a tax overhaul, particularly after their inability to deliver on seven years of promises to repeal Obamacare.
Senators in the party who have criticized Trump directly have sometimes ended up the focus of the president’s ire via Twitter, despite his needing their votes to move his agenda. On Thursday, Trump turned to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, singling out one of his most vocal Republican critics on Charlottesville and other issues and offering support to Flake’s primary opponent, former state Senator Kelli Ward.
“Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “He’s toxic!” Trump plans to travel to Phoenix on Tuesday for a campaign rally.
Republicans were spared the full media glare of the latest controversy, which broke out during the extended August congressional recess. That allowed the second- and third-ranking Senate Republicans — John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota — to remain silent after Trump’s recent remarks. On the House side, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise condemned white supremacists after Trump’s remarks without any mention of the president.
Fifty-five percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s response to the Charlottesville protests, while 67 percent of Republicans approve, according to a CBS News poll taken from Monday to Wednesday.
Sixty-three percent of Americans consider the attack that killed Heyer an act of domestic terrorism, the poll found.
One reason leaders are willing to denounce what Trump said without calling out the president personally: They need his help enacting key legislation. When Congress returns in September, it faces a daunting pileup of urgent tasks, including raising the nation’s debt ceiling and passing a bill to fund the government after Sept. 30.
“Fueling an all-out war with your own party’s irascible president when you need his signature to avoid defaulting on the debt and keeping the government open might restrain them from calling him out directly,” said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
McConnell waited more than 18 hours after Trump’s press conference to issue a statement, which ostensibly addressed the possibility of an upcoming white supremacist rally in his home state of Kentucky.
“We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head,” McConnell said in the Wednesday statement.
Ryan’s statement from Tuesday was similar: “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity,” he wrote on Twitter.
By contrast, Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin was direct in putting blame and responsibility on Trump.
“The president needs to be crystal clear that hatred has no place in our society, but he is currently failing at it,” the first-term lawmaker and military veteran said in a statement Wednesday.
A few other Republicans joined in direct slaps at Trump after his remarks Tuesday, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Representative Peter Roskam of Illinois, and Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who tweeted, “White supremacy, bigotry & racism have absolutely no place in our society & no one – especially POTUS – should ever tolerate it.”
Trump “should denounce them more strongly,” Roskam, who chairs the tax subcommittee on the House Ways and Means panel, said Wednesday in an interview. “It’s not acceptable to me. The president needs to make sure that he’s not giving any refuge or comfort to neo-Nazis or white supremacists or the Klansmen. There is no room for those views in the public square. They’re finding refuge in what he’s saying and he needs to be unambiguous about it and denounce it.”
For McConnell, the political calculations are complicated by the recent torrent of criticism Trump has hurled on Twitter at the Republican leader over the collapse of the Obamacare repeal effort. Those tensions erupted after McConnell said at a public event in his state that Trump had “excessive expectations” about how much the Senate could accomplish.
In addition, McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was standing next to Trump during his remarks Tuesday. She later told reporters, “I stand by my man — both of them,” when pressed about Trump’s criticisms of her husband.
“Keep in mind,” Brookings’s Binder said, “that no matter how low Trump’s approval ratings, Ryan’s and McConnell’s are lower. Stopping short of explicitly condemning Trump provides a veneer of insulation from hardcore Trump supporters and Trump himself.”
Ryan struggles to deal with a dysfunctional House Republican conference, where some of the most conservative members have close contact with senior Trump aides and even the president himself. Ryan remembers that some of those same members were behind the successful effort in ousting Ryan’s predecessor as speaker, John Boehner.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California sought to put pressure on Ryan on Thursday by calling on him to back legislation to get rid of Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol. “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately,” she said in a statement.
Ryan’s office said decisions about statues in the Capitol are for states to make. Each state government is allowed to choose two statues to place in the building.
Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican and Freedom Caucus member, said Wednesday that he absolutely opposes racism and white supremacy, but sees a political environment where Republican leaders are afraid to discuss violence on the left, given the backlash against Trump for doing exactly that.
“I think that both sides of the story aren’t being told adequately here, and unfortunately people run for the hills as soon as the racism thing comes up, and they feel compelled to only tell one side of the story,” Perry said when asked about how Republican leaders have reacted. “I think it’s disingenuous, I think it’s bad for the discussion and to get to the roots of this evil, and it just allows more violence.” It’s unclear how much damage, if any, Trump’s most recent remarks could do to GOP election prospects in 2018.
Republicans running in more moderate districts have an extra incentive to distance themselves more clearly from Trump’s controversies. “The deep red states and districts will probably be easy GOP victories –Trump or no Trump,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker.
“It’s the places where they need pickups — especially to widen their margin in the Senate but also in the 22 House districts won by Clinton — that uncritical support of Trump could prove a problem for GOP candidates,” he said.