Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Schumer briefs Democrats on impeachment trial 'mechanics' Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday sought to dispel the uproar over President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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 McSallyLobbying world Senate roundtable showcases importance and needs of women entrepreneurs GOP braces for Democratic spending onslaught in battle for Senate 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 GardnerHillicon Valley: House passes anti-robocall bill | Senators inch forward on privacy legislation | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Illinois families sue TikTok | Senators get classified briefing on ransomware Senators urge FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senators sound alarm on dangers of ransomware attacks after briefing MORE (R-Colo.), who has a tough race in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThree legal scholars say Trump should be impeached; one thinks otherwise Report: Barr attorney can't provide evidence Trump was set up by DOJ Jayapal pushes back on Gaetz's questioning of impeachment witness donations to Democrats 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 ErnstRepublicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Congress braces for chaotic December Senate roundtable showcases importance and needs of women entrepreneurs 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-CortezSanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Al Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Progressives' campaign strategy: Willful ignorance MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarAl Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Republicans disavow GOP candidate who said 'we should hang' Omar Hillicon Valley: Trump officials propose retaliatory tariffs over French digital tax | FBI classifies FaceApp as threat | Twitter revamps policies to comply with privacy laws | Zuckerberg defends political ads policy MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibAl Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Israeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project On The Money: Trump claims Hong Kong 'obliterated' without his action | Xi says China not afraid to 'fight back' | Tlaib offers bill to repeal 'opportunity zones MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyAl Green calls for including Trump's 'racism' in impeachment articles Warren adds Ayanna Pressley as campaign co-chair Warren speech in Georgia interrupted by pro-charter school protesters MORE (D-Mass.). Only Omar, who was born in Somalia, is an immigrant.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Collins opposes Trump's district court pick 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 YoungThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump says he is fighting testimony to protect presidency The Hill's Morning Report — Dems and Trump score separate court wins GOP braces for Democratic spending onslaught in battle for Senate 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 TillisNC rep explores Tillis primary challenge Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members Tillis challenger dropping GOP primary bid in North Carolina 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 PelosiTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans On The Money: Falling impeachment support raises pressure for Dems on trade | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Biden eyes minimum tax for corporations | Fed's top regulator under pressure over Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy 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 DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (Ill.) earlier on Tuesday slammed McConnell as Trump’s “greatest enabler.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP 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.