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Republicans are quiet as Trump urges minority congresswomen to leave the country

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent controversial tweets play right into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: The Washington Post)

A day has passed without prominent Republicans stepping forward to disagree with President Trump’s notion that four minority congresswomen who have been critical of his approach to immigration enforcement should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

Insinuating that people of color are foreigners, the president used a trope broadly viewed as racist when he tweeted on Sunday morning that the Democratic women, only one of whom was born outside the United States and all of whom are American citizens, “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe.”

The silence of Republican leaders appeared to suggest either that they agreed with the views expressed by their standard-bearer or that he has so effectively consolidated his control over their party that they have grown disinclined to voice dissent.

Another possibility, that Republicans do not see the Twitter-induced presidential fracas as relevant to them, would seem tenuous as the controversy in this case engulfed their own colleagues in Congress. One move that still reliably provokes intraparty backlash is Trump’s crusade against John McCain, the late Republican senator from Arizona.

“It’s deplorable what he said,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) lamented in March of Trump’s disparagement of his former Senate colleague.

“I can’t understand why the President would, once again, disparage a man as exemplary as my friend John McCain,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s previous presidential nominee, who also criticized the administration following the April release of the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

There was no equivalent defense of the four Democratic lawmakers who appeared to be the president’s targets on Sunday: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

The four have been locked in a public feud with leaders of their own party over the approval of a $4.5 billion emergency border aid package that they felt did not adequately curtail the administration’s authority. The progressive freshman lawmakers are also favored prey of Fox News.

President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both face battles with four Democratic Congresswomen, known as the "Squad." Here's what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump tells four liberal congresswomen to ‘go back’ to their countries, prompting Pelosi to defend them

The president’s disparaging comments, which came in a Twitter fusillade as the mass immigrant roundups promised by Trump had yet to be executed, were condemned as racist by Democrats and unaffiliated public officials. Some took to social media to share stories about being told to “go back” to countries from which they never came.

“Growing up I used to hear ‘go back to Mexico’ from many kids, though I was born in the USA,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) tweeted. “I thought then that it was just kids.”

In the chorus of condemnation, which echoed globally, the absence of Republican voices was striking. Not a single Cabinet official aired a difference of opinion. Nor did congressional Republicans rush to take issue with Trump’s suggestion that their colleagues leave the country — and then “come back and show us how it is done.”

One Republican who did speak out was Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a longtime GOP aide who was elected to Congress last year. He said the president was “wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S.”

Yet, he also signaled his agreement with aspects of the president’s message. He said lawmakers “who refuse to defend America should be sent home.” Aides did not return a request for comment about what Roy meant by “home.”

Otherwise, perhaps the most prominent Trump supporter to criticize his invective was Geraldo Rivera, a correspondent-at-large for Fox News. He called the president’s language “xenophobic” and “even racist” while taking pains not to criticize Trump, whom he called his “friend.”

Rivera told Trump, who built his political brand on the false claim that former president Barack Obama was born in Africa, “you’re better than that.”

Once, the president could expect censure from fellow Republicans for comments that plainly violate the norms of his office or the principles of constitutional democracy. There had always been a clutch of Republicans who had been willing to rebuke him — when he lashed out at the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” or claimed that an Indiana-born judge of Mexican descent could not impartially evaluate a case involving Trump University.

Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, called the remark about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel in the summer of 2016 the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

But many of the president’s critics within his own party have fled its ranks or fallen short in their reelection efforts. Former congresswoman Mia Love of Utah, whose family is from Haiti and who denounced Trump last year for labeling that nation and others “shithole countries,” lost her seat in the November midterms.

"Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost,” Trump said about the lone black Republican woman in Congress.

Others simply resigned, Ryan among them.

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Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who this month switched his affiliation from Republican to independent, on Sunday called Trump’s directive to the freshman Democrats “racist and disgusting.” The son of Palestinian and Syrian immigrants, Amash bucked the GOP in May by announcing his support for an impeachment inquiry.

Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake, who did not seek reelection last year, offered a faint note of disagreement with Trump’s diatribe, tweeting, “We’re all Americans, Mr President.” But his words no longer come with the weight of elected office.

Others have changed their tune about the president, who enjoys a high approval rating among Republican voters, though not as high as he maintains.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina once called Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” On Sunday, however, after a visit to the southern border, he said on Fox News of immigrants held in overcrowded facilities, “I don’t care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days. We’re not going to let those men go that I saw. It would be dangerous.” He also tweeted on Sunday about playing golf with Trump.

Self-styled moderates, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and mavericks, such as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, fell silent on Sunday.

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Many members of Congress were born abroad. On the Republican side, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was born in Canada, and Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Mark Meadows of North Carolina were born in Scotland and France, respectively.

None came to the defense of the Somali-born Democrat, Omar, whose family fled civil war and came to the United States by way of a Kenyan refugee camp.

Cruz invoked his immigrant parents in a post on Twitter, but to pillory Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for his Senate seat last year. O’Rourke revealed in a Medium essay on Sunday, which coincided with the release of a Guardian investigation, that he was descended from slave owners.

“Dad was a penniless immigrant from Cuba,” Cruz wrote, contrasting his ancestors to the “rich, landed aristocracy” from which he said Democrats were descended. He did not mention the president’s anti-immigrant slur or his apparent attempt to paint nonwhite people as foreigners.

Both parties have internal divisions, on issues from trade to health care. But the display on Sunday of Republican unity was especially notable in contrast to the Democratic infighting over race and immigration that dominated headlines during the week.

Facing no reprisal from his own party, the president appeared emboldened later Sunday, going on the offensive against Democrats for rallying around the congresswomen, whom he accused of using “disgusting language.”

“So sad to see the Democrats sticking up for people who speak so badly of our Country,” he wrote.

Rather than triggering criticism, Trump’s laceration of the cadre of liberal, minority women elicited laughter on Trump’s preferred cable news channel.

A segment on Democratic divisions focusing on the maverick congresswomen, known collectively as “the squad,” ran on “Fox & Friends” about 20 minutes before Trump issued his barrage on Twitter. Then, later in the day, a co-host of the show’s weekend addition laughed about the tweets with her colleagues.

“Someone’s feeling very comedic today,” Jedediah Bila said.

Four Democratic congresswomen of color responded July 15 to President Trump's tweets saying they should "go back" to the countries they came from. (Video: The Washington Post)

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