WASHINGTON — Republicans aren’t all thrilled about President Trump’s latest racist remarks — but what was beyond the pale for most of them was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling them racist on the House floor.
GOP lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill grudgingly defended the president’s tweets and comments that their four nonwhite Democratic colleagues should “go back” to where they came from, that they “hate our country” and claims that they’re “pro-terrorist” on Tuesday.
Those unwilling to defend the comments mostly ducked and dodged questions, diving for elevators to avoid reporters. And even those who offered tepid criticism weren’t eager to do anything about it.
But they furiously sprang into action when Pelosi described the “president's racist tweets” on the House floor, forcing a vote to get her words stricken from the Congressional Record as they claimed it was banned by House rules.
“I make a point of order that the gentlewoman's words are unparliamentary and be taken down,” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins said, trying to erase Pelosi’s remarks from the House record based on rules that bar members from attacking other lawmakers personally.
Most rank-and-file Republicans showed little interest in taking on Trump, accusing “The Squad” — freshman congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — of being anti-Semitic as justification for his remarks or shrugging them off as no big deal.
“I'm a person of color. I'm white. I'm an Anglo Saxon.”
“You know, they talk about people of color. I'm a person of color. I'm white. I'm an Anglo Saxon. People say things all the time, but I don't get offended,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Mike Kelly told VICE News before the blowup over Pelosi’s comments. “‘With a name like Mike Kelly you can’t be from any place else but Ireland.’”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flatly declared “no” when asked if he’d back the Democratic resolution labeling Trump’s words racist, describing the fight as “about socialism versus freedom.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise similarly took umbrage, claiming “we never disrespected the office” under President Obama even as he derided Democrats as socialists.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided to duck rather than defend Trump, saying lawmakers of all stripes needed to “lower the incendiary rhetoric” while insisting “the president’s not a racist.”
Ultimately, only four Republicans crossed party lines to vote to condemn Trump’s remarks as racist: swing-district Reps. Will Hurd of Texas, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Fred Upton of Michigan, as well as retiring Rep. Susan Brooks. Newly minted independent Michigan Rep. Justin Amash joined them
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the four congresswomen Trump has targeted in recent days, told VICE News after the vote that the GOP will do “anything and everything ... to protect their desire to advance bigoted narratives.”
“I think the fact that Republicans were more offended at acknowledging racism than they are at the racism itself speaks volumes for who they're fighting for in America,” she added as she walked off the House floor.
There simply aren’t that many Republicans left around Capitol Hill willing to criticize Trump on any major issue. Most of the moderate suburban swing-district Republicans who complained about his rhetoric in the past lost their seats in 2018, and the handful of senators willing to slam Trump have either retired or fallen in line.
For Capitol Hill Republicans, the racist tirades were just the latest tweets to duck.
“I’m just not going to deal with the tweet issue of the day.”
“I only think we should send people back if they're from New Jersey,” quipped Colorado GOP Rep. Ken Buck.
“The press unfairly focuses on issues like this,” he continued. “I’m just not going to deal with the tweet issue of the day.”
A handful of Republicans, many of them facing tough reelection fights, have been more willing to criticize Trump in recent days. But most of the Republicans who were unhappy with Trump’s comments weren’t willing to call them racist — or commit to voting with Democrats on a resolution describing them that way.
“That one line in the statement, is something that I think is regrettable,” Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, a Florida Republican, said. “Personal attacks or politically motivated attacks should have no place, which is why I'm voting against this resolution. This is a politically motivated resolution.”
Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole said he was unhappy with Trump’s choice of words. “I wouldn't tell anybody to go back to where they came from and I'm Native American so I guess I could do it better than anybody else. That's never the right thing to say to any American.”
But was it racist?
“I don't see it as a racial remark. I just don't think it's appropriate,” he said.
Plenty of others in tough spots weren’t eager to talk. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who’s up for reelection Democratic-leaning state, kept his ear firmly pressed to his phone as he marched through the winding hallways in the Capitol basement on Tuesday, ignoring this reporter.
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis was happy to defend Trump. He faces both a competitive primary and a tough reelection battle, and has decided to throw his lot in with the president.
“I don't think that the President is either a racist or xenophobe. He's got a wife who is an immigrant and mother who is an immigrant,” he told VICE News.
That doesn’t mean every Republican is ready to shrug off the comments. A handful of Republicans are likely to split with GOP leadership and back the Democratic resolution on the House floor when it gets a vote Tuesday evening. But they’re the exception that proves the rule.
Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) was studying a copy of the resolution near the House floor when approached by a reporter. He said he had no problem with most of it and was considering supporting it, but that it would be a lot easier it didn’t plainly call Trump’s comments racist.
Shimkus said his Christian beliefs tell him to love thy neighbor. The comments may have been “mean and nasty,” he said, but he can’t know what’s in Trump’s mind.
“You don't want to accuse someone… if they're not really doing that,” he said. “But you also struggle with his style. It's hard to defend, you know, and you kind of get worn out by it, because it just consumes the space of public discourse.”
Shimkus joined most of his GOP colleagues to vote against the resolution.
Cover: President Donald Trump leads a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump and members of his administration addressed a wide variety of subjects, including Iran, opportunity zones, drug prices, HIV/AIDS, immigration and other subjects for more than an hour. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)