GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism

Republicans are largely standing by — or at least not openly defying — President Trump 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 Murkowski (Alaska) and former officials like Defense Secretary James Mattis, 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. 

“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 Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters on Mattis. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (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 Hagel 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. 

Sen. Pat Roberts (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 Romney (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 Young (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 Collins (R-Maine), Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (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 Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (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 Lankford (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 Cornyn (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.” 

But pressed on the tone of the tweets, Cornyn, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (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.

Tags Ben Sasse Bob Corker Chuck Hagel Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump George Floyd protests James Lankford James Mattis Jeff Flake John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pat Roberts Susan Collins Tim Scott Todd Young Unemployment

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