Trump’s Dingell insults disrupt GOP unity amid impeachment
President Trump’s insult of a prominent Democratic family in Michigan is earning criticism from Republicans just at the time the GOP is trying to project unity on impeachment.
Trump’s real-time response to Wednesday’s impeachment vote in the House was to throw bitter and personal insults at rivals during a raucous rally in Battle Creek, Mich.
But it was his remarks about the late Rep. John Dingell and his widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell, that were too much for a number of Republicans.
Trump ripped Debbie Dingell (D) for voting for impeachment, and suggested her late husband, a legendary figure in the state and in Washington, D.C., who was the longest serving member of Congress in history when he died in February, was “looking up” from hell.
The president’s remarks prompted a mix of groans and cheers from the crowd of supporters and a quick backlash from prominent Republicans on a day when Trump and his allies expected to trumpet the party voting unanimously against two articles of impeachment.
On Thursday, GOP lawmakers were badgered with questions about the president’s attack on the Dingells and whether he should apologize.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed exasperated that the president had gone after two of the most well-liked members of the House in recent history in such personal terms. The timing was particularly problematic as Debbie Dingell noted it was her first holiday season since her husband’s death.
“He’s resting well in heaven. And, you know, it’s something I’m disappointed in, that type of commentary and, hopefully, the president and others will learn from it that this rhetoric has to come to an end,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) said.
A pair of Michigan Republicans piled on the president for the remarks. Retiring Rep. Paul Mitchell called them “dishonorable” and “unacceptable,” and Rep. Fred Upton called on Trump to apologize for insulting the late congressman, calling it “crass.”
Trump — the third U.S. president in American history to be impeached and the first president to be impeached while embarking on a reelection campaign — is entering a new phase of his presidency more defiant than ever.
At Wednesday’s rally — his longest to date — he criticized Democrats in personal terms, lamenting the “witch hunt” against him and brandishing new insults. Trump mocked Rep. Adam Schiff’s (D-Calif.) appearance and mused that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) used to “kiss my ass.”
Trump appears enraged and eager for an acquittal by the GOP-controlled Senate, blasting Democrats over their reluctance to turn over the articles and potentially delay the Senate trial on Thursday.
The barbs and tweets are on brand for Trump, whose presidency has broken the mold of those past, keeping an enormously divided Washington on its toes for three years while invigorating his loyal base of supporters.
But the bitter and personal tone of his response to impeachment, and the unprovoked attack on the widely respected John Dingell in particular, could make it difficult for some Republicans to avoid criticizing the president at a time when the party is looking to project unity.
“It doesn’t help him and it’s something that even his supporters I think find unpleasant and unnecessary,” said Greg McNeilly, a GOP strategist in Michigan. “John Dingell is, like any other lifelong politician, somebody everybody knows and respected for their ability to work in government.”
“If I were advising the president I would tell him to apologize and move on, but that doesn’t seem to be his style,” McNeilly continued.
Those close to Trump argued the attention given to the comments was overblown, but some White House aides appeared uncomfortable defending the actual content of Trump’s remarks.
Both press secretary Stephanie Grisham and deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley made a point to express their condolences to the Dingell family during separate television interviews, but both defended Trump’s right to vent amid a bruising stretch.
“I think that, as we all know, the president is a counter-puncher,” Grisham said on “Good Morning America.” “It was a very, very supportive and wild crowd, and he was just riffing on some of the things that had been happening the past few days.”
“No matter what the president says, people are going to parse it apart, tear it apart and try to focus on the most negative aspects of it,” Gidley said on Fox News.
Trump, who seldom apologizes or expresses regret publicly, did not respond to shouted questions in the Oval Office about his comments a day earlier.
Debbie Dingell, in an emotional interview with CNN, noted that some of the president’s claims about granting funeral accommodations for her late husband weren’t even true. She went on to appeal for more civility in politics.
“My family’s still hurting. … We’re a family grieving,” said Dingell, who by Thursday morning was fundraising off Trump’s remarks. “I think we should take a lesson from this and all respect each other.”
McNeilly doubted that the developments would hurt Trump in any significant way among voters in the state, calling talk that it could cost him Michigan “hyperbole.”
And Republican lawmakers have grown accustomed to responding to controversial comments from Trump. The Dingell remark carried echoes of the president’s attacks on the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which also included complaints about a lack of gratitude over funeral services.
The president previously put his allies in a difficult position on impeachment by comparing the proceedings to a “lynching” and attacking the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on Twitter during her public testimony.
Just last week, Trump caused more headaches by ridiculing Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist who won Time’s “Person of the Year.”
Trump is likely to continue his criticism of House Democrats into the New Year as the focus shifts to the GOP-controlled Senate and an impending impeachment trial.
One former White House official downplayed the broader implications of the president’s controversial remarks and suggested the fact that cable news coverage had shifted so quickly from the impeachment vote to Trump’s comments about Dingell undercut the significance of Wednesday night’s events.
“I actually think one thing we’ve learned is stuff like that just doesn’t matter,” the official said of the Dingell controversy. “I’m not saying it’s the right thing, but let’s not sit here and pretend like him making fun of John Dingell is going to have any long-term effect on the election or any long-term effect on messaging.”
Updated at 1:21 p.m.
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