Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPatient advocates launch drug pricing ad campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday sought to dispel the uproar over President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE’s controversial tweets targeting four nonwhite Democratic lawmakers, but also defended the president by declaring he is not a racist. 

McConnell tried to quell the controversy that has raged since Sunday when Trump tweeted that four minority Democratic lawmakers should “go back” to their home countries — even though all of them are U.S. citizens — by calling for a broad ceasefire in Washington. 

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“The president is not a racist,” McConnell responded after reporters pressed him Tuesday afternoon on whether Trump’s tweets were racist or whether the GOP leader himself would ever use such language. 

Yet in his prepared remarks he also acknowledged that the president as well as the House Democratic freshmen with whom Trump has feuded over Twitter are responsible for letting things spin out of control. 

“I think there’s a consensus that political rhetoric has really gotten way, way overheated all across the political spectrum,” he said. 

McConnell’s two-pronged strategy, distancing his party from Trump’s rhetoric while also being careful not to alienate the president and his core supporters, mirrored the balancing act that many GOP lawmakers are trying to pull off, with mixed results. 

Trump’s tweet from Sunday, which he backed up with similar rhetoric during a Rose Garden ceremony Monday, set GOP lawmakers scrambling to control the political fallout. 

A handful of Republican lawmakers facing potentially tough races next year in Colorado, Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona took different tacks in their responses, signaling the lack of a general plan on how to react to the president’s most incendiary and unexpected statements. 

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever Trump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing MORE (Ariz.), one of the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents, let it be known through a spokeswoman that she would not comment on the matter.

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' The Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (R-Colo.), who has a tough race in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE carried in 2016, said he disagreed with Trump’s language, though stopped short of calling it racist.

“I disagree with them. I wouldn’t have said them. I wouldn’t have done that,” he said. “That’s not what we ought to focus on in this country.” 

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstFarmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate Liberal group to target Ernst over Social Security 'behind closed doors' comments MORE (Iowa), a member of Senate GOP leadership and a top Democratic target in 2020, acknowledged Monday that she thought Trump’s comments were racist.

“Uh, yeah. They’re American citizens,” she said, referring to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez, Thunberg, Rapinoe make BBC's 100 most inspiring women of 2019 Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Democratic strategist on Sanders debate performance: 'I just think he might've topped out' MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarKrystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden Democratic strategist on Sanders debate performance: 'I just think he might've topped out' MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibKrystal Ball on Sanders debate performance: 'He absolutely hit it out of the park' Omar endorses Sanders presidential bid Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyOmar endorses Sanders presidential bid Ocasio-Cortez to endorse Sanders for president Pennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature MORE (D-Mass.). Only Omar, who was born in Somalia, is an immigrant.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' The Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in another state that voted for Clinton, on Monday urged Trump to delete his tweets.

One aide to a vulnerable Senate Republican incumbent said lawmakers in swing states are “boxed in” because if they criticize Trump’s language, they risk angering his supporters, but if they defend the president, they could alienate swing and minority voters.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungWar of words at the White House Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' during Syria meeting, top Democrats say House to vote on resolution condemning Trump's Syria pullback MORE (Ind.) said candidates in tough races such as McSally, who represents a state with a large number of Hispanic voters, wouldn’t necessarily be hurt by Trump’s comments.

“I think McSally’s clearly going to win. She’s an exceptional candidate, a fighter pilot who’s already been delivering for the people of Arizona,” he said, predicting she would present an independent brand to voters next year.

Targeted GOP incumbents hailing from more traditionally Republican states have defended Trump more forcefully, however.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said Monday it was “outrageous” to describe Trump’s language as racist, arguing “of course they’re not racist.”

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTillis says impeachment is 'a waste of resources' GOP requests update on criminal referrals prompted by 2018 Kavanaugh probe The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren, Sanders overtake Biden in third-quarter fundraising MORE (R-N.C.), who on Monday said he wasn’t familiar with Trump’s tweets despite massive public attention, on Tuesday sought to defend Trump.

“I don’t think the president’s a racist, I don’t think he’s a xenophobe,” Tillis said. “I think he’s frustrated with people shifting the discussion away from the real problems he’s trying to solve, like the border problem.” 

Like many other GOP lawmakers, Tillis tried to turn the conversation to the strength of the economy.

“The fact of the matter is we have a great story to tell about the economy, we’ve got a crisis at the border. We’ve got issues that we need to solve here, and I think this kind of discussion is casting attention away from things most of the American people want us to focus on,” Tillis said.

Trump last month formally endorsed Tillis in his 2020 reelection bid. 

Republican lawmakers appeared on Tuesday to coalesce behind Trump more than the day before. House Republican leaders, for example, strongly defended the president at a Tuesday press conference. 

One GOP lawmaker speaking on background said he had received pushback from Trump’s supporters at home after admonishing the president over his language Monday.

 “I’m getting some pushback from Republicans and getting no credit from liberals,” the senator said of the reaction he got from criticizing Trump’s comments.

McConnell on Tuesday quickly sought to deflect scrutiny onto the four Democratic lawmakers Trump attacked in his tweet over the weekend by pointing to their own inflamed rhetoric about immigrant detention centers and even Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiLawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump Trump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' Trump threat lacks teeth to block impeachment witnesses MORE (D-Calif.), who was accused last week of singling out female Democratic lawmakers of color.  

 “I think the tone of all of this is not good for the country, but it’s coming from all different ideological points of view. To single out any segment of this, I think, is a mistake,” McConnell said, defending Trump from Democratic attacks.

“We’ve seen the far left throw accusations of racism at everyone, anyone who disagrees with them on anything, including the Speaker of the House,” he noted, referring to a recent claim by Ocasio-Cortez last week that Pelosi had singled out her and a few other colleagues who are minorities.

McConnell’s comments came after two days of Democratic attacks on Trump for his comments and on GOP lawmakers for not calling out the president more forcefully.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSchumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever Senators take fundraising efforts to Nats playoff games Overnight Health Care: Watchdog finds DEA allowed more opioids even as overdose deaths rose | Judge temporarily blocks Georgia abortion law | Three states report more vaping deaths | Dem proposes new fix for surprise medical bills MORE (Ill.) earlier on Tuesday slammed McConnell as Trump’s “greatest enabler.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPelosi fires back after Trump 'meltdown': 'We have to pray for his health' 5 big wins in US-China trade pact Trump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe MORE (N.Y.) on Monday called the subdued Republican criticism of Trump’s rhetoric “inexcusable” and warned they were “making a deal with the devil” by going along with the president because they support his agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.