GOP stands by Trump after Charlottesville

Republicans in Washington are largely standing by President Trump despite discomfort with his response to the violent and deadly clashes in Charlottesville, Va.

Although they are openly questioning why it took Trump 48 hours to forcefully denounce the KKK members, neo-Nazis and white supremacists who turned a quiet, peaceful college town into a deadly war zone, they say they don’t think the president is a racist and that they are ready to work with him on policy.

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“I don’t think the president is some sort of closet racist who’s deliberately stirring up the devils of our nature,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran lawmaker and former member of leadership, told The Hill.

“Because of the nature of the attack, he should have been more specific. Within 48 hours, he was,” Cole added. “Probably he missed an opportunity, but we’re all singing from the same song book now, and that’s a good thing.”

Republicans across the political spectrum were quick to denounce the white nationalists who marched on Charlottesville last weekend, one of whom is charged with plowing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman and injuring 19 others. And many Republicans criticized Trump’s response blaming “many sides” for the violence as lackluster at best.

Colorado Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerOvernight Health Care: CDC pushes for expanding HIV testing, treatment | Dem group launches ads attacking Trump on Medicare, Medicaid cuts | Hospitals, insurers spar over surprise bills | O'Rourke under pressure from left on Medicare for all Dem group launches ads attacking Trump's 'hypocrisy on Medicare and Medicaid cuts' Trump keeps tight grip on GOP MORE, who leads Senate Republicans’ 2018 campaign efforts, scolded Trump on Twitter for failing to directly call out the “evil” as “white supremacists” and “domestic terrorism.”

At the same time, congressional Republicans didn’t ditch Trump in droves as they did last fall after a leaked 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape revealed the then-GOP nominee privately bragging that he can grope women because he’s a celebrity.

Days before Election Day, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan joins board of Fox Corporation Bottom Line Paul Ryan says Trump will win reelection because of 'record of accomplishment' MORE (R-Wis.) held a conference call with rank-and-file members and announced he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump. And he gave his fellow Republicans the green light to cut Trump loose if it would help them win reelection.

There were none of those actions this time, and some Republicans were quick to defend Trump, particularly after he denounced the far-right groups by name on Monday.

The political reaction largely fits a familiar pattern that’s recurred throughout Trump’s candidacy and first 200 days in office: outrage from liberals, Democrats, “Never Trump” Republicans and a handful of others, while most Republicans try their best to duck and downplay the controversy and pivot back to their stalled GOP agenda.

“I think the left is trying to make this political and it shouldn’t be,” said one vulnerable House Republican. “I’m disgusted by the heat from both sides.”

“I believe his message has been clear that racism, bigotry and hatred is not American and must be rejected in its entirety,” added Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) a Trump ally who said he still backs the president.

Asked if he had any concerns about Trump’s initial response, a top aide to a conservative congressman replied: “None.”

“Despite whatever faults Trump has, he is not racist or anti-Semitic. … Trump did not earn this.”

The GOP-controlled House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees currently have no plans to hold hearings into the Charlottesville attack or on why white supremacist groups appear to be on the rise, GOP sources said, though they face pressure to do so from Democrats.

All GOP leaders seem to want to talk about is overhauling the outdated tax code, something they’ll need Trump to sign. Ryan has been tweeting nonstop about his party’s efforts to enact tax reform this fall.

In the wake of the attack, the Trump administration’s actions speak louder than any words the president utters, said Cole, who was serving as Oklahoma secretary of state when domestic terrorists blew up a federal building in the heart of Oklahoma City. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump O'Rourke on impeachment: 2020 vote may be best way to 'resolve' Trump MORE made clear the Justice Department and FBI are investigating whether Saturday’s deadly attack can be prosecuted under federal hate crimes and domestic terrorism laws.

“That’s pretty swift and stern stuff,” Cole said.

To the “Never Trump” crowd of Republicans critical of the president, Charlottesville represents a defining moment for the party.

They fear that a Republican Party that becomes identified too closely with Trump risks permanently alienating a more diverse, less white electorate. Republicans are also losing ground with young people: A recent poll showed that only 22 percent of millennials approve of Trump’s job performance, while 62 percent disapproved.

“I think this is life or death for the Republican party. That’s not an overstatement,” Rick Tyler, the former spokesman to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' New report details O'Rourke's prankish past O'Rourke sees 'a lot of wisdom' in abolishing Electoral College MORE’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign, said on MSNBC.

“He’s not only unfit to be president …  he’s unfit to be human,” another vocal Trump critic, GOP strategist Ana Navarro, proclaimed on CNN.

One thing to watch will be whether Trump’s already dismal approval among voters drops further in Charlottesville’s aftermath. On Monday, Gallup’s average of polls showed that only 34 percent of Americans approved of Trump, an all-time low for the president, while 61 percent disapproved, an all-time high.

If his popularity slips further, rank-and-file Republicans may have no choice but to dump Trump and distance themselves from a toxic and volatile president, especially with Democrats fighting to take back power in the House and Senate in 2018.

GOP strategists said the president simply can’t afford another drop in the polls.  

“Trump's low poll numbers makes everything harder for his administration,” said Alex Conant, a former top aide to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Dem senator wants Trump to extend immigration protections to Venezuelans Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump MORE (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s presidential primary rivals. “With less public support, he'll find that he has even less political capital when Congress returns" to Washington after Labor Day.

Trump’s handling of Charlottesville was certainly “not helpful,” Conant added, but it’s too early to evaluate whether it did any lasting damage to the brand of the Party of Lincoln.

“In the past, voters have treated Trump as an independent political brand, rather than the leader of the GOP,” argued Conant, a veteran of the Republican National Committee and the George W. Bush White House.  “That's how so many Republican candidates were able to run ahead of him last year.”