Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEverytown plans ad blitz on anniversary of House background check bill Kentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday sought to dispel the uproar over President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries 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 McSallyDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Trump knocks Democrats at rally: Bloomberg 'getting pounded' 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 GardnerDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices MORE (R-Colo.), who has a tough race in a state Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate The Hill's 12:30 Report: Roger Stone gets over three years in prison; Brutal night for Bloomberg Poll: Democrats trail Trump in Wisconsin, lead in Michigan and Pennsylvania 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 ErnstOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Progressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa 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-Cortez Ocasio-Cortez defends Warren against 'misogynist trope' Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Ocasio-Cortez defends Sanders running as a Democrat: It's 'more than what you call yourself' MORE (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSanders wins endorsement of top Muslim group Omar endorses progressive Georgia Democrat running for House seat Tlaib says she held Omar's hand during 'triggering' moments at Trump's State of the Union speech MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibSanders wins endorsement of top Muslim group Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms Omar endorses progressive Georgia Democrat running for House seat MORE (D-Mich.) and Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThere's no such thing as a free bus Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms Tlaib says she held Omar's hand during 'triggering' moments at Trump's State of the Union speech MORE (D-Mass.). Only Omar, who was born in Somalia, is an immigrant.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Susan Collins in statistical tie with Democratic challenger: poll 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 YoungRepublican Senate campaign arm hauled in over million in January The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' 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 TillisDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices 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 PelosiBloomberg faces criticism for tweet showing altered debate moment Trump knocks Democrats at rally: Bloomberg 'getting pounded' Biden earns endorsement from former House impeachment manager 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 DurbinDemocratic senators ask DOJ watchdog to expand Giuliani probe Trump commutes sentence of ex-Illinois Gov. Blagojevich in rash of clemency orders The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (Ill.) earlier on Tuesday slammed McConnell as Trump’s “greatest enabler.”

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation 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.