The quartet of cautions comes the day after a letter surfaced from the widower of the deceased congressional aide, Lori Klausutis, urging Twitter to delete Trump’s tweets about the matter. Despite the letter from Timothy J. Klausutis, Trump and the White House continued to raise the conspiracy theory later Tuesday.
Romney said in a tweet: “I know Joe Scarborough. Joe is a friend of mine. I don’t know T.J. Klausutis. Joe can weather vile, baseless accusations but T. J.? His heart is breaking. Enough already.”
Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, also said Trump should stop.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board said in a piece titled “A Presidential Smear” that “Mr. Trump is debasing his office, and he’s hurting the country in doing so.”
The Examiner added in its editorial about Trump’s “slanderous attack” that “one could hardly be blamed for reading it and doubting his fitness to lead.”
“It is deeply unfortunate that certain loathsome individuals chose to amplify, repeat, or otherwise resurrect this tall tale, either as part of a bad-faith, cheap-shot ad hominem argument against Scarborough (as in the case of Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos) or else out of the same feverish kookery that motivates most conspiracy theorists,” the Examiner said.
But here’s the thing: These are all people who have been willing to call Trump out from time to time. Trump’s closest allies, by contrast, have been almost completely silent.
That also applies, tellingly, when it comes to vouching for Trump.
Apart from Romney, Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who also criticized the president this week, virtually no congressional Republicans are talking about this. Allusions to the conspiracy don’t appear in other tweets or public comments from members.
The Washington Post has reached out to GOP members of the Florida congressional delegation, in which Scarborough served as a Republican. It has not heard back, though, from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.). Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), an avid Trump ally who represents Scarborough’s old district, declined Wednesday to echo Trump’s call for a new investigation, though he referred to unsubstantiated rumors about the case.
“In northwest Florida, at the time, there was a lot of focus on that medical examiner, and it’s not something that I’ve seen in a lot of the more recent discussion of those facts," Gaetz said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took a pass on either reprimanding or vouching for Trump on Wednesday, saying: “I was not here with Joe Scarborough. I don’t quite know about the subject itself.” He was also asked about the Wall Street Journal editorial and said he hadn’t read it.
Another area conspicuously silent is conservative media. Apart from some sites that regularly traffic in conspiracy theories, they’ve generally avoided the topic. They have occasionally dealt with it obliquely, including by lifting up the letter from Klausutis’s widower or the debate over whether Twitter should delete presidential tweets. Others have suggestively pointed to a 2003 interview Scarborough gave to radio host Don Imus in which Imus jokingly alluded to the conspiracy theory. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany seized on this Tuesday when asked about Trump’s allegations.
But McEnany notably didn’t defend the conspiracy theory, and other Trump allies have done very little to either bolster, fact check or question the appropriateness of the claims, as other outlets have.
The silence has been particularly pronounced on Fox News. Nexis transcripts show a scattered few straight-news mentions in recent days of the back-and-forth over what Twitter should do. Around the time this story was initially published, Fox’s Dana Perino pressed Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh on what Klausutis’s widower said, to which Murtaugh responded, “Certainly, we feel for the grieving family. And it’s a terrible loss. ... But I’m not going to get out ahead of the president. He’s got this on-running feud with Joe Scarborough, and I think it’s plain to see for everybody.”
But hosts such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity haven’t really touched the story in recent days.
Hannity did bring it up briefly on his radio show last week, at which point former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly urged him to leave it alone:
HANNITY: Somebody sent me a text of a tweet that Mika — Mika’s all upset because Donald Trump brought up a conspiracy theory talking about an incident that happened when Joe was a congressman — that they did have questions with the coroner, etc., etc.O’REILLY: Oh, I got it. Okay.HANNITY: So, I have a choice: I could go full-on Hannity and start pounding the living crap out of them — and I like to fight, and I’m going to win — or just ignore it. What would you do?O’REILLY: In this case, I would ignore it.
Hannity has apparently taken that advice. In the week since then, according to transcripts, he has not mentioned Scarborough or Trump’s conspiracy theory on his TV show — despite apparently believing there’s somehow some validity to something involving the coroner.
Nor has the story appeared much on FoxNews.com. The site mentioned Trump’s claims in a story last week about Scarborough’s co-host and wife, Mika Brzezinski, trying to get Trump banned from Twitter. It also wrote about Twitter’s response to Klausutis’s husband Tuesday. Apart from that, the only mention appears to be a clip of Fox radio host Guy Benson deriding Trump’s tweets on the matter. (Benson, who writes for TownHall.com, is often willing to call Trump out for such behavior.)
That’s a contrast to other, more fringe sites which lifted up the Imus interview or at least passed along Trump’s tweets credulously.
If anything, the combination of the slow-building criticism and the unwillingness of Trump’s allies to amplify — much less vouch for — the claim should tell you how his party and base of support views this particular gambit. If they thought it was legitimate or defensible, they would probably say so, but they haven’t been.
Apparently they hoped it would go away. But when not even a grieving widower can put a stop to it, that pretty strongly suggests it won’t. And that seems to be why we’re suddenly seeing pushback.
This story has been updated.