Former president Donald Trump’s refusal to apologize for or disavow the outspoken antisemites he dined with last week is setting him increasingly at odds with leaders of his own party, providing the first test of his political endurance since launching his third run for the White House.
Trump has been taken aback by the backlash and maintained that the controversy over his Mar-a-Lago dinner with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has been vocally spouting antisemitic conspiracy theories, would blow over, according to advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. “I think it’s dying down,” they recalled Trump saying.
But the wave of denunciations only intensified as lawmakers returned to Washington from the Thanksgiving holiday this week, breaking a well-worn pattern of dodging or shrugging off Trump’s controversies during much of his presidency, possibly ushering in a new phase of more vocal criticism of him.
“We have to stop the whispered concerns and veiled statements, and we have to stand up for the principles and the beliefs that our country and party were founded on,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the first potential 2024 candidate to condemn Trump on the dinner, said on Wednesday. “There is no place for antisemitism or white supremacists in the Republican Party and no place for anyone who gives people like Nick Fuentes the time of day. Donald Trump’s recent actions and history of poor judgment make him untenable as a candidate for our party.”
Rebukes from other likely 2024 challengers followed, including an exceptionally rare criticism from Trump’s own former vice president. “I think he should apologize for it, and he should denounce those individuals and their hateful rhetoric without qualification,” Mike Pence said in an interview with NewsNation that aired Monday.
Others were more cautious, with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo denouncing antisemitism without naming Trump or his dinner guests. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Trump views as a foremost threat in a potential 2024 challenge, has not commented on the controversy; DeSantis has his own history of equivocating about right-wing extremism. His spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
The admonitions against Trump’s dinner guests built on widespread complaints among Republicans that the former president damaged the party’s midterms performance by discouraging his supporters from voting early or by mail and by pushing candidates to parrot his lies about the 2020 election that repelled moderates and independents. Instead of capitalizing on a red wave to triumphantly declare his 2024 candidacy, Trump announced his campaign with the immediate support of only a handful of far-right Republicans and faced an emboldened, diverse field of potential rivals for the presidential nomination.
The dinner, coming just a week after Trump’s candidacy kickoff, also underscored the risks of his unusual post-presidential life and lack of a traditional campaign infrastructure. Fuentes and other guests arriving with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, were waved through Mar-a-Lago security without showing ID, people familiar with the matter said, and Trump had no staff with him that evening except his personal aide, Walt Nauta.
A Trump spokesman declined to comment.
Up to the day of the dinner, multiple advisers tried to convince Trump to cancel it. Advisers showed Trump some of Ye’s comments in the efforts to talk him out of the dinner, advisers said. Ye has lost business deals and has been widely condemned for explicitly antisemitic tweets and diatribes.
But Trump, recalled one adviser, “wasn’t having any of it.” The former president was focused on Ye’s history of praising him, saying, “He’s always been a nice guy to me.” Ye visited Trump at the White House in 2018 and frequently praised his presidency.
Fuentes — an online commentator who attended the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 — has espoused racist and antisemitic views, endorsed segregation, attacked immigrants and made light of the Holocaust.
Several advisers said Trump was now angry at Ye for bringing Fuentes, but they said Trump didn’t plan to attack Ye publicly.
Trump has also resisted efforts in recent days to persuade him to make a statement denouncing Fuentes and Ye. His latest remarks addressing the controversy, reported Tuesday on the Fox News website, emphasized his previous claim that he did not know who Fuentes was. “I never heard of the man,” Trump said. “I had no idea what his views were, and they weren’t expressed at the table in our very quick dinner, or it wouldn’t have been accepted.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she talked with Trump and his staff after the dinner and told reporters the former president reiterated to her he “had no idea who Nick Fuentes was.” Based on conversations with Trump and his staff since the dinner, Greene said they are changing their protocols to ensure that such people are not brought near Trump again.
“Any former president should have that in place,” she said. “If you don’t know who someone is and don’t know what they’re about, you don’t know that they’re maybe a bad person in your midst.”
Trump has called David Friedman, his former ambassador to Israel, to express his displeasure with Friedman’s tweet criticizing him, advisers said. Friedman did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Some advisers said they fear Trump’s statements have further inflamed the controversy. His advisers have been flooded with tweets from Jewish allies and major Republicans begging Trump to condemn Fuentes.
“President Trump should condemn Kanye West and Nick Fuentes’s Jew hatred, antisemitism and Holocaust denial,” said Morton A. Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, which honored Trump with a rare prize on Nov. 13 recognizing his administration’s Israel policies. “Even if he didn’t know who Nick Fuentes was — one could easily believe that to be true — but now that he knows, he should say something.”
The point of a statement denouncing Fuentes, two advisers said, would be in part to stop the Republican criticism of him. “One of his big problems is that he doesn’t like to criticize people who support him,” an adviser said. “If you support him, he’s not going to want to attack you.”
Other Republicans, though, are now showing willingness to attack Trump at a level hardly seen since before he became the party’s nominee in 2016. The floodgates opened Monday as at least eight Republican senators joined in criticizing the dinner. Their leader, Mitch McConnell, chimed in on Tuesday, saying, “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.” Trump responded to McConnell by calling him a “loser” in the Fox News interview.
Also on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters he believes that nobody “should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes” and that “he has no place in the Republican Party.” When reporters noted that he had incorrectly suggested that Trump had condemned Fuentes, McCarthy said, “Well, I condemn his ideology. It has no place in society. At all.”
Most Republicans kept the focus and sharpest critiques for Fuentes rather than directing their ire at Trump. But moderate Republicans were quick to publicly condemn Trump for the dinner, with retiring Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) saying on Tuesday that it showed “extraordinarily poor judgment” on Trump’s part to convene such a gathering.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) was equally critical on the “lack of judgment” but went further in stressing that it “warrants an unequivocal apology.”
“Fuentes is an evil human that should not be given a seat at any table, let alone at the table of a former American president,” he said.
House Republicans were mostly dodging reporters’ questions about the dinner, with a handful completely ignoring repeated attempts for answers. GOP aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to explain Republicans’ frustrations, described the mood over the dinner as “dismal” and “very, very bad” within the ranks. Several stressed that the last thing any Republican wants to be talking about is the 2024 election, let alone that the party’s leader is dining with white nationalists and antisemites.
But Trump’s staunchest allies in the House are coming to his defense, echoing his response that he had no idea who Fuentes was. Most did not address Ye, whose antisemitic rants in recent months have been well publicized.
“Listen, the president has no ill will nature in his heart. He’s a very, very kind man,” Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) said Tuesday. “I don’t think the president should be held responsible for some guy he didn’t notice who showed up for a casual supper.”
The blowback from Republican lawmakers contrasted with the common practice during Trump’s presidency of often avoiding questions about Trump’s latest outrages or claiming not to have seen his tweets. Trump’s resistance to condemning extremists who might be sympathetic to his candidacy recalls his response to the 2017 Charlottesville protest, which Trump said included “very fine people, on both sides.” His remarks at the time earned a rebuke from the Republican Jewish Coalition, prompted business leaders to quit an advisory council and led a top economic aide who is Jewish to consider resigning.
The lead-up to the Charlottesville march, organized as a Unite the Right rally, marked a high point for cooperation within the extreme far right, long fractured by infighting over ideological and personal differences, according to Megan Squire, an extremism researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. At that time, she said, right-wing extremists were galvanized and emboldened by Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign, former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s Breitbart News and the “alt-right” online community.
After a neo-Nazi killed a young counterprotester in Charlottesville, the coalition splintered again, as leaders of different groups traded blame and struggled against lawsuits. The breakup led to the rise of a new crop of leaders who were present in Charlottesville but escaped blame for the violence, Squire said, including Fuentes and Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio.
Fuentes grew an online following with live-streams, raising money that totaled more than $100,000 in the 10 months before January 2021, according to Squire’s analysis. In that month, Fuentes was banned from major online platforms for his participation in the pro-Trump mob outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Fuentes set up his own site to broadcast his shows and collect money, making it harder for researchers to track but also reducing his reach.
Fringe figures like Fuentes often try to gain exposure and legitimacy by getting close to politicians. Fuentes organized conferences with speaking appearances by far-right House Republicans Greene and Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), leading to criticism from party leaders. Gosar cast his 2021 appearance at Fuentes’s conference as a misunderstanding but returned in 2022. Greene stood by her participation at the time.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Greene said she attended knowing she could speak to college students. Following the uproar over her attendance, Greene recalled asking her staff to pull videos of Fuentes to understand who he was and “could not believe the stuff he says.”
“I don’t want anything to do with him,” she said Tuesday after reiterating Fuentes has no place in the GOP. “I don’t regret talking to the kids that were there because I don’t understand why they follow him. But would I have gone to his event? No. But I’m worried about kids that would follow him and that’s a shame because I think we all should be. Why would anybody follow someone who says such things?”
While the Trump dinner is by far Fuentes’s most successful stunt, it appears to have produced huge publicity but only modest increases in followers and income, according to Squire of the SPLC.
“They go through these swings when they’re relevant and then irrelevant and then grasping for relevance again,” Squire said. “They don’t really have anything else going, so this is the only play.”
Another key figure in the Trump-Fuentes dinner who has spun through cycles of relevance is Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right provocateur who first rose to prominence through Breitbart. Yiannopoulos left the site and was cast out of the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017 following the publication of video clips in which he appeared to defend relationships with underage boys.
But Yiannopoulos resurfaced earlier this year as a Capitol aide intern to Greene. Asked about his hiring, Greene said she talks to him “occasionally” since he lives in her district but that she was unaware of his own antisemitic rants.
Ye announced his own plan to run for president in November and tapped Yiannopoulos as his campaign manager. Ye said in a recent podcast interview that he met Yiannopoulos through a producer for Alex Jones, the online conspiracy theorist ordered to pay a $49 million jury verdict to parents of children killed in the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Yiannopoulos then introduced Ye to Fuentes.
Yiannopoulos has since claimed credit for adding Fuentes to Ye’s dinner with Trump as a way to damage the former president, telling NBC News he did it “just to make Trump’s life miserable.” Yiannopoulos has over the years toggled between public comments supporting and disparaging Trump. Yiannopoulos did not respond to a request for comment.
Fuentes, in a post to the alternative social network Telegram, took exception to Yiannopoulos’s claims. “My intention was not to hurt Trump by attending the dinner, that is fake news,” he wrote. “I love Donald Trump.”
Paul Kane and Camila DeChaulus contributed reporting.
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