GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm

President Trump's attacks on four minority Democratic lawmakers have created a rift in the GOP, putting many Republicans on the defensive.

Most are seeking to steer clear of the firestorm, but a few GOP lawmakers came out against Trump's suggestion that the four women of color "go back" to their home countries, even though all are U.S. citizens.

One of the strongest denunciations came from Rep. Will Hurd (Texas), the only African American House Republican, whose district has a large number of Hispanic residents. He blasted Trump's tweets as "racist" and "xenophobic" in a CNN interview.

He called the president's remarks "unbecoming of the leader of the free world."

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the lone African American Republican in the Senate, characterized Trump's language as "unacceptable" and "racially offensive."

The president's comments also drew rebukes from GOP lawmakers facing tough reelection campaigns.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is seeking another term in a state that voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, urged Trump to delete his tweets attacking the Democratic lawmakers and implying they're not real Americans.

"I disagree strongly with many of the views and comments of some of the far-left members of the House Democratic Caucus ... but the President's tweet that some Members of Congress should go back to the 'places from which they came' was way over the line, and he should take that down," Collins said in a statement.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Trump was "wrong" to say the four Democrats - Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) - go back to the countries where they are from.

"Three of the four were born in America and the citizenship of all four is as valid as mine," Toomey said.

But other GOP lawmakers were more timid in their efforts to steer Trump away from stoking racial resentment.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump's staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, spent Sunday golfing with the president. He urged Trump to focus on the policies of his political opponents instead of engaging in personal attacks.

"We don't need to know anything about them personally. Talk about their policies," he said on "Fox & Friends."

Asked if Trump went too far, Graham responded: "They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country."

But Trump appeared not to take such pushback as much of a rebuke. In a Rose Garden ceremony Monday afternoon, he argued that Graham was in some ways harsher on the minority Democratic lawmakers criticized by the president because Graham called them "a bunch of communists."

For many Republicans, Trump's heated rhetoric on Twitter has become akin to a recurring weekend migraine that causes lawmakers pain early in the week but then soon dissipates.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday declined to comment on Trump's language, telling reporters he would be happy to take their questions on Tuesday, when he usually holds a weekly press conference.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, said, "What the president said was a mistake, and it was an unforced error."

While GOP lawmakers were careful to say they didn't approve of Trump's behavior or language, most stopped short of condemning it as racist - doing so would open them up to criticism from Trump's loyal base.

Democrats have been quick to accuse them of silently condoning the president's conduct.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor said Trump's comments "drip with racism" and asked whether GOP lawmakers were staying quiet about "xenophobic" comments "out of embarrassment or agreement."

"Many of my Republican colleagues let these moments sail by without saying even a word. The Republican leadership especially rarely criticizes the president directly, even in a situation like this that so clearly merits it," he said.

Schumer warned that if Republicans are overlooking racist behavior to advance their agenda of tax cuts and deregulation, they're "making a deal with the devil."

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the elected Senate GOP leadership, took a similar tack to Graham's.

"Just because the so-called squad constantly insults and attacks the president isn't a reason to adopt their unacceptable tactics," he said of the four Democratic lawmakers.

"There is plenty to say about how destructive House Democrats' policies would be for our economy, our health care system and our security. I think that's where the focus should be," Blunt said.

Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), another member of the GOP leadership team, said Trump's tweets are "not constructive" and "not helpful."

Like Graham, she said Trump should focus on policies.

"I personally think the GOP has a stronger platform to talk about. That's what we should be focusing on," said Ernst, who is up for reelection next year.

Pressed by reporters on whether she thought Trump's comments were racist, Ernst said, "Yeah, I do."

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) accused Democrats of using any excuse to play the race card against Trump.

"No, they're not, they're obviously not racist," Harris told WBAL's Bryan Nehman when asked about Trump's Sunday tweets. "But again, when anyone disagrees with someone now the default is to call them racist, and this is no exception."

One major question for McConnell and Republican leaders is whether they will put a resolution disapproving of Trump's language on the Senate floor.

Pelosi announced in a letter to colleagues Monday that the House plans to vote on such a resolution soon and send it to the Senate.

"The House cannot allow the President's characterization of immigrants to our country to stand. Our Republican colleagues must join us in condemning the President's xenophobic tweets," she wrote.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent Trump critic, stopped short of calling the tweets racist but indicated that he would consider voting for a resolution of disapproval if it came to the floor.

"If that were to come, people know where I stand," he said.

"My own view is that what he said, and what was tweeted, was destructive, was demeaning, was disunifying, and frankly, it was very wrong," Romney told reporters.