It was the latest example of Trump’s erratic and impromptu impeachment response, which has unnerved and hamstrung Republicans tasked with trying to defend him.
Republicans from Capitol Hill to the White House spent much of Tuesday answering questions about Trump’s rhetoric, with responses that ranged from light criticism to awkward justifications. Only a few chose to fully embrace the president’s use of a term most associated with the barbaric hanging of African American men.
“Given the history of our country, I would not compare this to a lynching,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday. “That was an unfortunate choice of words.”
Democrats roundly criticized the president’s comment, with some contemplating a House vote to condemn his language.
Trump took to Twitter early Tuesday morning to publicly lament how Democrats are running their impeachment inquiry, repeating familiar talking points before making his first public reference to “lynching” as president.
“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
While the president’s tweet created a distraction from the substance of the impeachment process, it did little to improve Trump’s standing as he faces the most significant legal and political threat to his presidency yet.
As Republicans were forced to answer questions about Trump’s rhetoric, the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry yielded testimony from a State Department official who said under oath that he was told the president had leveraged foreign aid to Ukraine while seeking investigations of political opponents. Trump and his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani have previously denied that charge, which forms the central theme of the impeachment inquiry.
“It is a rancorous story about whistleblowers, Mr. Giuliani, side channels, quid pro quos, corruption and interference in elections,” William B. Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said Tuesday in an opening statement obtained by The Washington Post.
Trump has increasingly deployed incendiary and offensive rhetoric as he has processed the likelihood of being the third president in history to be impeached. As several members of his administration have testified before Congress, Trump has called the impeachment effort a “a coup,” a “witch hunt,” illegal and unconstitutional. At a rally earlier this month, he said it was “bullshit.”
But Tuesday was the first time Trump merged his willingness to stoke the country’s racial tensions with his bombastic counterimpeachment messaging campaign.
Lynching, the extrajudicial murder of an untried suspect, usually by a mob and often by hanging, has a unique history in the United States because of its direct link to slavery and racism. In the United States, more than 4,700 lynchings were recorded between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. Of those murdered people, almost three-quarters were black men, women and children. An untold number of runaway slaves were lynched after being captured.
Trump’s willingness to describe his political predicament as a lynching displayed an “ignorance” of that history, said Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University. “It’s a kind of willful manipulation of this historic symbol of black vulnerability to score points,” he said. “But he’s ignorant enough to not understand that that’s not something that you just willy-nilly do.”
The White House sought to defend Trump’s rhetoric as unrelated to race.
“The president’s not comparing what’s happened to him with one of our darkest moments in American history,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters Tuesday. “What he’s explaining clearly is the way he’s been treated by the media since he announced for president.”
Some of Trump’s allies highlighted videos and news archives that showed Democrats using similar language to describe the GOP-led impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the current chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in 1998 told the Associated Press that “Republicans so far have been running a lynch mob.”
He also told the National Journal: “We shouldn’t participate in a lynch mob against the president. Neither should we be seen as die-hard defenders of the president if it’s true he committed terrible crimes.”
Then-Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) was quoted in the Baltimore Sun comparing the process to a “political lynch mob.”
“Find the rope, find the tree and ask a bunch of questions later,” he said.
Reps. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) each made remarks on the House floor calling the treatment of Clinton a “lynching” or using the term “lynch mob.”
But Trump’s latest comments recall his lengthy and fraught history with race.
He took out a full-page ad in 1989 calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty after the arrest of the Central Park Five — teen boys of color from Harlem accused of beating and raping a female jogger. Even after DNA evidence exonerated the five more than a decade later, Trump refused to accept that they were not guilty.
After white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in August 2017 and were met with counterprotesters, one of whom was killed, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
In July, Trump posted racist tweets telling four minority congresswomen — all U.S. citizens — to “go back” to their ancestral countries.
Much like after that incident, most Republicans have said little about Trump’s “lynching” comment, dodging questions by saying they did not see the president’s latest tweet.
But some of Trump’s fiercest allies on Capitol Hill defended the president.
“This is a lynching in every sense. This is un-American,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters at the Capitol, calling the impeachment process “a sham” and a “joke.”
Graham later said that he was referring to the term in a political context rather than a “racial” one.
Former vice president and current 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is at the center of the impeachment inquiry over allegations that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate him and his son, also weighed in, tweeting: “Impeachment is not ‘lynching,’ it is part of our Constitution. Our country has a dark, shameful history with lynching, and to even think about making this comparison is abhorrent. It’s despicable.”
Biden, however, said during a 1998 CNN interview that if Republicans were not careful, the impeachment of Clinton could be viewed by history as a “partisan lynching.”
Biden apologized for that comment late Tuesday, saying it wasn't "the right word to use" while arguing Trump's statement was worse.
There were some Republicans who also denounced Trump’s comments, although they were among those who had criticized the president before.
“We can all disagree on the process, and argue merits,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) “But never should we use terms like ‘lynching’ here. The painful scourge in our history has no comparison to politics, and @realDonaldTrump should retract this immediately. May God help us to return to a better way.”
Other Republicans toed a delicate line, not approving of the language but supporting the spirit of it.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters that lynching is “not the language I would use” and then criticized Democrats. Asked why he would not use the term, he said: “I don’t agree with that language. Pretty simple.”
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said he did not consider the president’s use of the word “lynching” to be racist but rather a commentary on “an absence of due process.”
The only black Republican in the Senate, Tim Scott (R-S.C.), also offered a tempered response that stopped short of criticizing Trump.
“There’s no question that the impeachment process is the closest thing to a political death-row trial, so I get his absolute rejection of the process,” Scott told an NBC News reporter. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘lynching.’ ”
Trump has publicly complained that Republicans are not doing enough to stay united and defend him from the impending impeachment.
Several Republican lawmakers, donors and advisers have blamed the White House for the lack of party unity, decrying what they see as an undisciplined approach that lacks a coherent message.
Trump’s erratic behavior, combined with his penchant for offending minorities, has only made it harder for Republicans to coalesce around an impeachment defense, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“His use of this word, likening this to a lynching, is not a part of any strategic approach but is a manifestation of an impulse to fight back with the most incendiary language that he could muster,” Riley said.
On Friday, Trump is scheduled to visit Benedict College, a historically black school in South Carolina, for a forum on criminal justice.
John Wagner, Mike DeBonis, JM Rieger and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.