“Let me be clear: I do not believe Democrats are in love with terrorists, and I apologize for what I said earlier this week,” Collins began in the first of five tweets.
Collins leveled the accusation at his colleagues Wednesday on Fox News as the House debated a War Powers Resolution requiring congressional authority for President Trump to launch military actions against Iran.
The partisan reaction to Trump’s order for a lethal airstrike against a top Iranian commander prompted accusations from some GOP lawmakers and former Trump administration officials that those criticizing the commander in chief were unpatriotic.
Collins’s apology came several hours after Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, published a scathing letter to the congressman on CNN.com.
“You are not a talk radio host or a carnival barker,” Bharara wrote. “You are a pastor, an attorney and a sitting member of Congress. Therefore, the evidence would suggest you should know better. To utter such garbage, which you know to be false and defamatory, goes against all the training and teaching you must have received. But you got your cheap shot across, and perhaps that’s all that matters to you.”
Similarly, Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, condemned Collins’s assertion that Democrats not only were in love with terrorists but “mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families.” Collins was referring to Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad early Jan. 3.
“Disgusting,” McFaul tweeted. “As US ambassador to Russia, I became accustomed to addressing disinformation Putin propagated about Americans. I never expected that elected Members of Congress would engage in the same, making grotesque false statements about fellow Americans. Stop this nonsense.”
The impact of Collins’s comments were felt at a New Hampshire political event with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) when a protester ran into the venue yelling at Warren and accusing her of “siding with ISIS. You’re siding with Iran.”
Asked after the town hall about what Collins had said about Democrats loving terrorists, Warren said, “I think it is disgusting for a congressman to stand up and say that he believes that kind of nonsense.”
In his Twitter apology, Collins suggested it was his own service in Iraq in 2008 that made him so defensive of Trump’s decision to target Soleimani.
“I witnessed firsthand the brutal death of countless soldiers who were torn to shreds by this vicious terrorist. Soleimani was nothing less than an evil mastermind who viciously killed and wounded thousands of Americans,” Collins said. “These images will live with me for the rest of my life, but that does not excuse my response on Wednesday evening.”
It is unclear what prompted Collins’s apology. Just two hours earlier on Fox News, when asked about the comment, Collins defended it.
“It was very frustrating to me that we don’t call it what it is, and that’s a president who attacked a terrorist,” Collins said.
Pressed on the question of whether Democrats “love” terrorists, Collins said: “I think their actions are betraying them at this point. Do all of them love terrorists? No. But they won’t acknowledge he was a terrorist. They won’t acknowledge the fact that this was a good thing for the world for Soleimani to be taken out.”
Almost simultaneous with Collins posting his apology, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called him out on the floor for the comments and urged him to apologize to every Democrat.
Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) then read Collins’s Twitter apology aloud. But Scalise also sought to explain the comment, saying it was said in the context of Republicans’ broader disappointment in the response to Soleimani’s death.
Hoyer thanked Scalise for letting him know about the apology, adding: “We ought to deal with one another based upon the intellectual arguments, the constitutional premises and the law. Not on personalities or assertions of malintent.”
Michelle Lee contributed to this story from Dover, N.H.