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Lindsey Graham’s and the GOP’s initial responses to Trump’s ‘go back’ tweets are a mess

They’re all over the place, and they’re often nonsensical.

President Trump's July 14 tweet follows infighting between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and four Democratic freshman women of color. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

After spending a day silently pretending that President Trump didn’t say what he just said, GOP reactions to Trump telling nonwhite congresswomen to return to the countries they came from are starting to roll in.

And it’s clear they have no good answers.

The first high-profile Trump ally to take a stab at explaining his tweets was his campaign’s rapid response director, Matt Wolking. Wolking took to Twitter to argue that Trump wasn’t actually telling anyone to go back to their countries, despite Trump having said exactly that.

Republican Senators responded on July 15 to President Trump's tweets targeting minority, liberal congresswomen. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Anyone who says the president told members of Congress to go back to where they came from is lying,” Wolking maintained. “He told them to ‘Then come back and show us how it is done.’ ”

Trump’s tweet, though, literally contained many of the words that Wolking maintains the president didn’t say. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken crime infested places from which they came,” Trump said. Just because he urged them to then come back doesn’t mean that he didn’t tell them to “go back” in the first place.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) also tried to pretend that Trump hadn’t said what he said. Harris said that Trump’s tweets were “clearly not racist” and that “he could have meant go back to the district they came from — to the neighborhood they came from.” Trump’s tweet clearly references the “countries” these members came from before telling them to “go back.” There is no ambiguity on that count.

The first White House aide to weigh in at length was Marc Short, who serves as Vice President Pence’s chief of staff. He — rather remarkably — suggested Monday morning that Trump can’t be racist because he appointed a Chinese American transportation secretary, Elaine Chao. And that’s not even oversimplifying Short’s response.

Here’s what he said:

Since I returned back to the White House, one of the greatest experiences I had was the chance to join the vice president on Independence Day, when the vice president swore in 50 new naturalized citizens. It was a remarkable day. And that day, he was joined by a Cabinet member in this administration who came to the United States as a child unable to speak English, learned English and eventually became a naturalized citizen. She is an Asian American, Elaine Chao, serving in the Cabinet of the Trump administration. So when people write the president has racist motives here, look at the reality of who is actually serving in Donald Trump’s Cabinet. He is making a point about a great frustration a lot of people feel that — I think it’s hard to find anything Ilhan Omar has actually said since elected to Congress that has been positive about the United States of America.

Short was also asked whether he would acknowledge that Trump’s tweets were racist. “I’m not going to acknowledge that that is,” he said. “I’m not.” But he apparently isn’t going to directly dispute it, either.

Another top administration official, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Ken Cuccinelli, did his best to avoid the topic in a CNN interview. Cuccinelli eventually submitted that the tweets weren’t racist, but declined to explain.

“You know, you’re going to have to ask the president about that,” he said.

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Sen. Lindsey Graham’s response, though, might take the cake. Graham (R-S.C.), who in different times in 2016 said Trump engaged in “race-baiting” and was “xenophobic,” went on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning to offer Trump the subtlest of rebukes, urging him to “aim higher.” But Graham also viciously attacked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Omar and the other women Trump was tweeting about as hating the United States.

“We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” Graham said. “They hate Israel. They hate our own country. They’re calling the guards along our border — Border Patrol agents — concentration camp guards. They accuse people who support Israel of doing it for the Benjamins. They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America."

Graham then added: “Don’t get down — aim higher. We don’t need to know anything about them personally. Talk about their policies.”

The man who just literally called these women “communists,” “anti-Semitic” and “anti-America” and said “they hate their own country” turns around and says we shouldn’t engage in personal attacks and should instead focus on policy. These are all personal attacks. It’s difficult to think of a more discordant statement.

Only a handful of Republicans have firmly rebuked Trump, and they have generally shied away from labeling Trump’s tweets “racist.” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Monday on a Michigan radio program that Trump’s tweets were “really uncalled for,” and former Ohio governor John Kasich (R) called the tweets “deplorable and beneath the dignity of the office.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the tweets were “way over the line” and should be taken down, and Rep. Pete Olson (R), who represents a diverse Texas district, said Trump should disavow his tweets.

Olson’s Texas colleague, Rep. Chip Roy (R), was among the first to react. He tweeted late Sunday that “POTUS was wrong to say any American citizen, whether in Congress or not, has any ‘home’ besides the U.S.”

But even Roy felt the need to include an addendum, lest he be viewed as an apostate: “But I just as strongly believe noncitizens who abuse our immigration laws should be sent home immediately, & Reps who refuse to defend America should be sent home 11/2020.”