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GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism

Republicans are largely standing by — or at least not openly defying — President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE as the country faces crises that have led to new criticisms of him from old allies.

Trump’s response to the police killing of George Floyd, and days of protests, sparked high-profile criticism from GOP Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPollster Frank Luntz: 'I would bet on' Trump being 2024 GOP nominee Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan Trump drama divides GOP, muddling message MORE (Alaska) and former officials like Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisBiden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet Rejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs MORE, underscoring the unease in certain parts of the party to the president’s actions.

But there are no signs, yet, that Republicans are ready to tilt into full open rebellion against Trump, who remains popular with the same base of voters they will need in only months. Instead, most GOP senators are finding a way to praise, or at least not directly criticize, Trump. 

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“I don’t think that’s going to make a difference like some have talked about in terms of being the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunDemocrats accuse GOP of new lows in culture wars Trade representative says policy must protect key industries Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion MORE (R-Ind.) told reporters on Mattis. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse to advance appropriations bills in June, July The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won MORE (R-S.C.) added that blaming Trump was “fashionable” but “incorrect.”

“To lay the blame at President Trump's feet for the division in this nation is a pretty short-sighted view of it,” he said during an interview with Fox News. 

The decision to forcibly remove protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House, coupled with threats to send the military to U.S. cities to quell protests, has been the big new source of tensions.

Eighty-nine former Pentagon officials, including Defense secretaries Leon Panetta, Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack Trump Afghan pullout deal unachievable, says ex-Pentagon leader MORE and Ash Carter, said in a joint op-ed that they were “alarmed” at Trump “threatening to order members of the U.S. military to violate the rights of their fellow Americans.” Mattis, in a blistering statement to The Atlantic, wrote that Trump “tries to divide us” and the country has had “three years without mature leadership.” 

Mattis is widely respected among Senate Republicans, and his foreign policy views fit the caucus’s more than Trump’s. But most senators made it clear they wanted no part of a feud that would put them between him and the president. 

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Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsSenate GOP faces retirement brain drain Roy Blunt won't run for Senate seat in 2022 Lobbying world MORE (R-Kan.), who is retiring at the end of the year, called Mattis a “great general” but agreed to disagree with him on his view on Trump. 

“I don’t share that view. I think he’s doing the best he can under very difficult circumstances,” Roberts said when asked if he thought Trump was a divider. 

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Florida's restrictive voting bill signed into law The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE (R-Utah) called Mattis’s statement “stunning and powerful” but notably did not get into if he actually agreed with Mattis’s criticism. A statement late Friday about the country’s racial tensions did not directly mention the president, but Romney said he had a “deep respect for those who have protested.” 

“Our elected leaders at every level have a responsibility to set the tone and help our country face its flaws and heal,” he added. 

GOP senators face an election this fall that could cost them their majority as the nation battles a pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 lives in the country and a fragile economy with tens of millions newly unemployed. Trump’s handling of it all will go a long way toward determining who wins in November.

The GOP’s response has largely mimicked a playbook they have used repeatedly during Trump’s missteps: Some lawmakers criticize, but most either defend the president, if they can, or at least don’t openly break with him. Many decline to comment altogether, as they did this past week when several senators said they had not seen footage of protesters outside the White House or had a chance to read Mattis. 

“My reflections are that this is a dispute between the former secretary of Defense and the president of the United States, and I’m focused on issues that are critical to our national security ... so I don’t have anything more to say about that dispute,” said Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungTo meet the US innovation challenge, keep NSF's mission intact America can build back better through fair and open competition GOP senator supports 'diplomatic boycott' of 2022 Olympics in Beijing MORE (R-Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Republicans discussed neither Mattis's nor Trump’s response to the White House protesters during closed-door caucus meetings. 

There have been notable criticisms: In addition to Murkowski, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Manchin touts rating as 'most bipartisan senator' MORE (R-Maine), Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottUpdating the aging infrastructure in Historically Black Colleges and Universities McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' The instructive popularity of Biden's 'New Deal' for the middle class MORE (R-S.C.) and Ben SasseBen SasseTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls NYT's Stephens says Ted Cruz more 'unctuous' than Eddie Haskell GOP worries fiscal conservatism losing its rallying cry MORE (R-Neb.), fresh off a primary win, each criticized the forceful removal of protesters from Lafayette Square. Others were wary about deploying active-duty military troops into U.S. cities to try to quell protests and riots. 

But there are real political risks for Republicans who speak out against Trump. Former Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  Cindy McCain: Arizona election audit is 'ludicrous' The Republicans' deep dive into nativism MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerThe unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Fox News inks contributor deal with former Democratic House member MORE (R-Tenn.), two of the caucus’s most outspoken Trump critics, retired amid threats of tough reelection bids. Hours after Murkowski told reporters she was “struggling” over whether to support Trump, he weighed in on Twitter vowing to primary her. The president also name-checked Collins, Sasse and Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordRubio and bipartisan group of senators push to make daylight saving time permanent Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many MORE (R-Okla.) after they voiced concerns about the trip to St. John’s Episcopal Church. 

And those voices were outnumbered by those who offered defenses of Trump, or merely declined to weigh in altogether. 

Asked about Trump’s tweets suggesting that looters would be shot and threatening “vicious dogs,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls Cornyn is most prolific tweeter in Congress so far in 2021 Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel MORE (R-Texas), who is up for reelection in November, said “some people love the president, some people don’t, and I don’t think we’re going to resolve that." 

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But pressed on the tone of the tweets, Cornyn, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' McConnell alma mater criticizes him for 1619 comments McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' MORE (R-Ky.), demurred. 

“I’m not talking about the tone of his tweets, come on,” said Cornyn, a frequent tweeter himself. 

McConnell himself has sidestepped directly commenting on Trump’s statements about protesters for more than a week and did not respond to questions about deploying U.S. troops in cities. Asked about the incident outside the White House, he told reporters, “I'm not going to critique other people's performances.”

His most forceful defense of the president in the wake of Floyd’s death in late May came not during an interaction with reporters, but when he blocked a Democratic resolution that would have specifically condemned Trump for the treatment of protesters outside the White House. 

McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, didn’t directly comment on the president’s handling of the protesters but instead focused on Democrats, whom he accused of having a “myopic obsession with President Trump.” 

“Outside of the Washington, D.C., bubble, there is no universe where Americans think Democrats' obsession with condemning President Trump is a more urgent priority than ending the riots or advancing racial justice,” he added. 

Asked about Murkowski’s comment and Mattis’s statement as he was leaving the Capitol at the end of the Senate’s work week, McConnell, as he routinely does to hallway questions, stayed silent. 

“We’ll see you next week,” he said.