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Defying Trump, Rick Scott backs McConnell and Murkowski, tiptoes around false claims about election fraud

The interview was typical of the balancing act Scott has tried to maintain as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group that works to elect Republicans to the Senate

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republican leaders at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 2. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg News)
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Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on Sunday was both eager and hesitant to talk about former president Donald Trump and his effect on Republican candidates’ chances heading into the 2022 elections — depending on which version of Trump he was being asked about.

The Trump who has waded into open Senate primaries, endorsing various pro-Trump Republicans despite GOP leadership’s preference that he not get involved?

“I think you’d be foolish not to want and accept Donald Trump’s endorsement, but you’re going to win not because somebody endorses you,” Scott said carefully Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Trump who has yet to concede the 2020 presidential election and who has spent a year falsely claiming that the race was stolen from him?

“I think you’d have to ask President Trump,” Scott, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, responded after a brief pause, avoiding one of host Chuck Todd’s several questions about Trump’s role in undermining faith in the U.S. election’s integrity.

The interview was typical of the balancing act Scott has tried to maintain as chairman of the NRSC, the group that works to elect Republicans to the Senate. For months, Scott has tried to have it both ways, by embracing Trump — and even presenting him with a “Champion for Freedom Award” on behalf of the committee in April — but avoiding or waving off Trump’s most outlandish claims and feuds.

Scott on Sunday charged that Democrats’ focus on Trump would only help Republicans win back the Senate in 2022, citing Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory last week over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race. Youngkin held Trump at arm’s length throughout his campaign, neither explicitly embracing nor denouncing him, while McAuliffe frequently tried to tie Youngkin to the former president — a tactic Scott endorsed.

“I hope Democrats continue to be obsessed with Donald Trump,” Scott said. “I think Terry McAuliffe would probably run his campaign differently, wouldn’t focus his whole campaign on Donald Trump. I think what we have to do is we have to say, we would love Donald Trump’s endorsement. If you’re a Republican, you want his endorsement, but you’re going to win on the issues.”

Scott also indirectly criticized the 13 House Republicans who helped pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Friday, handing President Biden a long-awaited legislative victory.

“We almost have $30 trillion worth of debt. $30 trillion worth of debt. We have to hope to God that our interest rates never go up because it will never be paid for,” Scott said. “The Democrats in D.C. and the Republicans continue to waste your money. And I’m going to oppose it all the way along.”

Trump on Sunday blasted Republicans who worked with Democrats on the infrastructure deal as “Republicans in name only” who “just don’t get it!”

Scott did not mention the 2017 Republican tax cuts or bipartisan coronavirus relief bills passed during the Trump administration that added significant amounts of debt to the government’s books.

In the same interview, however, Scott reaffirmed his support for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), defying the attacks that Trump has levied against both. Trump has endorsed Murkowski’s primary challenger, Kelly Tshibaka, saying in June that Tshibaka is “MAGA all the way.”

“Lisa Murkowski is bad for Alaska,” Trump said then through his Save America PAC. “Murkowski has got to go!”

When asked Sunday if the NRSC would financially support Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump during his impeachment trial in February, in her reelection campaign, Scott said the group “absolutely” would.

“The National Republican Senatorial Committee, we support all of our incumbents. And fortunately for us, we’ve got great candidates running in our primaries,” he said.

As for McConnell, Scott said he would support his election as Senate majority leader again if Republicans took back the Senate in 2022. Trump has said McConnell should not be a leader in the party and has regularly attacked him since the minority leader called Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. On Sunday, Trump said McConnell was among the Republicans who “should be ashamed of themselves” for supporting the infrastructure bill.

“I’ve known Mitch McConnell since the early ’90s,” Scott said. “I actually lived in Kentucky and supported him then. I have a good working relationship with Mitch McConnell.”

Scott was even less inclined to talk about Trump on Sunday when the issue of the 2020 election was brought up, including a poll that showed only 22 percent of Republicans believe Biden was legitimately elected.

“Well, I think you’d have to ask them, but I think Joe Biden was elected president,” Scott said.

Scott also refused to respond to a statement Trump put out last month that declared, “The insurrection took place on November 3rd, election day. January 6th was the protest.”

“Look, you can go ask all these questions about why people think the way they do,” Scott said. “I can tell you what, you know, we’re going to win in ’22 because we’re going to talk about issues. We’re not going to talk about the last election.”

After Scott sidestepped a few more iterations of that question, Todd asked him outright: “You’re not at all concerned that former president Trump is helping to create a false narrative that there’s something wrong with our elections?”

“I’m focused on how do we win in ’22,” Scott said, avoiding mention of Trump one last time. “And I know exactly how to win.”

correction

A previous version of this article misstated Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s home state. It is Alaska, not Alabama. The article also incorrectly described Murkowski’s February vote. She voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial, not to impeach him.

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