The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even Trump’s biggest backers appear to think he might have just gone too far

U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) talks to a potential voter about immigration before the arrival of Donald Trump for a meeting with local residents in Iowa in June. (Brian Frank/Reuters)

They've call him "the leader" on immigration.

They've said he adds "immeasurably" to GOP debates.

They've drawn parallels between Trump and their own campaigns.

But after Donald Trump suggested temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, some of Washington's most conservative lawmakers who had previously expressed support for the GOP front-runner are saying something else: absolutely nothing.

Their silence is telling, suggesting Trump has finally taken grassroots conservatism to a place most others aren't willing to go. Most Republicans spent Tuesday and Wednesday distancing themselves in no uncertain terms from Trump's suggestion to ban an entire religion — or trying to stay out of it entirely.

But The Fix looked through recent statements of lawmakers who have said positive things about Trump in the past and found just a handful of those so far, like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), have commented publicly on Trump's proposal.

Watch: People can't condemn Trump's "ban Muslims" comment fast enough. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

King, one of Congress's most vocal opponents of immigration reform and a Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) supporter, told reporters Tuesday he's "appreciative" of Trump's comments, because they have triggered a discussion about Congress's "constitutional right to determine who comes to America."

But he emphasized, according to CQ Roll Call's Emma Dumain, that he wasn't making an endorsement of Trump's proposal one way or the other.

The leader of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 30 or 40 of the most conservative lawmakers in Congress, said Trump's proposal wouldn't jibe with U.S. values, but he implied Trump might have a point in being concerned about Muslims entering the country: "This is America, and there shouldn't be a religious test," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told The Columbus Dispatch. "We all understand that. But we also understand that you need a common-sense approach to security here in America."

In fewer words, that's where it seems most lawmakers who have at one time said nice things about Trump stand. They're not clearly chastising Trump, like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) so succinctly did Tuesday, nor are they enthusiastically embracing Trump's most controversial idea so far. They're mostly just silent.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan says the ban proposed by Donald Trump "is not what this country stands for." (Video: AP)

And their silence suggests one of two things: 1) Conservatives are either torn about whether Trump's proposal will help or hurt the conservative cause, like King appears to be, or 2) They know it's a politically dangerous idea but don't want to alienate Trump's supporters in saying so.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) might fall into that last category. While most of the presidential candidate's colleagues criticized Trump, Cruz notably declined to do so, telling reporters at an unrelated press conference Tuesday, "I do not believe the world needs my voice added to that chorus of critics." 

Cruz, The Fix has noted, is well-positioned to welcome Trump's supporters into his camp if and/or when Trump is ever out of the race.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said he did not support Donald Trump's controversial comments on Muslims Dec. 8. (Video: Reuters)

Conservative media pundits were no less ambiguous Tuesday about Trump. As Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed points out, none of the talk radio leaders explicitly denounced or endorsed Trump's idea, but they expressed varying levels of sympathy.

On one end of the spectrum, Laura Ingraham said Trump's approach "hurts the cause of populism," adding she supports the idea of "a pause on immigration, period."

On the other end of the spectrum, Rush Limbaugh decided what Trump said was good politics for Trump. And Sean Hannity wondered if Trump didn't have a point: "If somebody from a country that practices Sharia, wants to come to America, do we have a right to know and to vet whether or not they are bringing values that are contradictory to our constitutional republic?”

Conservatives don't seem to know what to make of this new level Trump has gone to in his political rhetoric. But their silence seems to suggest one thing: After calling some illegal Mexican immigrants rapists, after refusing to take back arguably derogatory comments about women, after implying Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a war hero, after insulting politicians and voters publicly, this time Trump has just gone further than most any other well-known conservative seems willing to go.