“A lot of this is going to be in the eye of the beholder,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and other reporters Tuesday when asked whether what Trump did was a good idea.
“Just don’t comment on that,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent Trump critic, told reporters.
These reactions by GOP lawmakers aren’t surprising. They’re consistent with how Republicans have handled dozens of controversies involving Trump over the years: Defend the president, and if you can’t, try to ignore what he did/said/tweeted.
But still, their solidarity behind the president’s show of force was notable. Even now, at a moment of national crisis, there isn’t much incentive for Republicans to depart from Trump.
Some Republican lawmakers defended Trump.
“I am glad the president led yesterday by going to a church,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) told reporters.
“You can characterize it the way you want, but obviously the president is free to go where he wants and to hold up a Bible if he wants,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday — ignoring the force used to get Trump to that church.
On Monday night, federal law enforcement officers, with gas masks on, used rubber bullets and flash-bang shells to clear out protesters from a public park across the White House, about 30 minutes before a 7 p.m. citywide curfew. After that, Trump walked across the street to a historic church, outside which he held up a Bible, was photographed and walked back. The Post reported he wanted to counter the narrative that he was holed up in a bunker some of the weekend during protests outside the White House.
Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (R) praised Trump as courageous for making the walk to the church.
Two Republican senators have spoken out forcefully.
“There is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. Sasse is up for reelection this year, but political observers quickly noted Sasse won his primary weeks ago and that his reelection should be secure.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who faces one of the toughest reelection battles of her career, said she thought Trump came across as “unsympathetic and insensitive” and took a dig at his religiosity: “It was painful to watch peaceful protesters to be subjected to tear gas in order for the President to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once.”
Other GOP lawmakers have expressed some discomfort.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is the nation’s most prominent black Republican and has gently but publicly criticized the president’s response to these protests, framed his criticism in a hypothetical rather than addressing what actually happened. “I didn’t see it personally,” he told Politico in an interview. “… But if your question is ‘Should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo?’ the answer is no.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told reporters he thought the timing of Trump going to the church was “wrong.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blamed “professional agitators” for preparing to stay out past curfew and thus being on the receiving end of law enforcement, an implicit defense of Trump. (By all accounts, the protests were peaceful at the time the authorities moved in.)
Many in the media fell for the calculated & deliberate tactics of professional agitators.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 1, 2020
They knew the street needed to be cleared before 7pm curfew.
But they deliberately stayed to trigger police action & get the story they wanted, that “police attacked peaceful protestors.”
Many other Republican senators just ignored reporters’ questions about this or pretended they weren’t aware of what happened.
Regarding the protests nationwide, there has been a noticeable difference between Republican and Democratic lawmakers’ reactions. While Republicans zero in on the violence by some protesters, Democrats focus on the police tactics that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and struck the match for these protests in the first place.
The partisan difference on how to view the core makeup of these protests makes it hard to believe Congress will act in any meaningful away to address protesters’ grievances or counter people who are stirring up the chaos. (It’s hard to say who is at these protests and why, but local officials in some states say young white men are driving some of the chaos. There is no evidence, as Trump claims, that a left-wing group known as “antifa” is leading this.)
At this point, it’s naive to think Republicans will push back against Trump in any significant way. Their fate is tied to his. They’ve watched as lawmakers who have strongly criticized the president in recent years have lost their jobs. And the leader of the Senate, McConnell, is up for reelection in five months in a state where he is receiving significant pressure from his supporters not to deviate from the president. Republicans’ control of the Senate could be in danger if they don’t get their supporters to vote for them in November in high numbers.
Privately, many of these senators don’t agree with many of the president’s controversies. Republican Jeff Flake, the former senator from Arizona, recently told The Post of Trumpism: “I don’t know anyone who thinks that this is the future of the party.”
Regarding what Trump did Monday night, Brendan Buck, a former top aide to the most recent Republican House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, was blunt in comments to news organizations, including The Post: “We long ago lost sight of normal, but this was a singularly immoral act. The president used force against American citizens, not to protect property, but to soothe his own insecurities. We will all move on to the next outrage, but this was a true abuse of power and should not be forgotten.”
But publicly, those still in office have no choice but to link arms with the president if they want to keep their seats. That’s just the political reality of the Republican Party under Trump. Flake watched some of Trump’s impeachment proceedings from the public gallery; the senators who stayed quieter about the president or embraced him were the ones on the Senate floor.
It’s still been interesting, though, to see in recent weeks how Republican lawmakers have not joined Trump on some of his other controversies, which seem like an attempt at distracting from the rising coronavirus deaths and tens of millions of unemployed Americans. Trump has pushed away public health experts’ advice to wear masks; McConnell and other Republican leaders have embraced masks in public. Trump has tried to accuse an MSNBC host of murder; Republicans haven’t followed him there.
But when it comes to directly criticizing the president on any number of issues, including one that was particularly jaw-dropping, Republicans have predictably refrained.