The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, GOP defiant amid allegations that incendiary rhetoric contributed to climate of violence

After the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, many politicians condemned the violence and blamed divisive political rhetoric around the country. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

President Trump and his Republican allies remained defiant Sunday amid allegations from critics that Trump’s incendiary attacks on political rivals and racially charged rhetoric on the campaign trail bear some culpability for the climate surrounding a spate of violence in the United States.

Trump, who has faced calls to tone down his public statements, signaled that he would do no such thing — berating billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer, a target of a mail bomb sent by a Trump supporter, as a “crazed & stumbling lunatic” on Twitter, after Steyer said on CNN that Trump and the Republican Party have created an atmosphere of “political violence.”

Later Sunday, Trump lashed out again on Twitter, this time at the media: “The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country.”

The GOP’s defensive posture, following Saturday’s deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, came as some Trump allies sought to shift blame to others, including media figures and Democratic leaders, arguing that recent attempts by liberal protesters to challenge GOP officials in public were perhaps more responsible for the national unrest than the president’s combative politics or the rise of conspiracy theories on the right. Those theories appear to have driven the suspects behind the bombs sent to Democratic officials and the mass shooting Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

“You could say [Democrats are on the] defensive after encouraging the mob scene at the Kavanaugh hearings,” Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, wrote in a Twitter post on Sunday, referring to the political showdown over Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation this month, in which liberal activists protested outside the Capitol.

The debate that erupted over the weekend reflected a relatively new front in the country’s partisan divide with just over a week to go before hotly contested midterm elections. While other mass shootings have typically prompted arguments over gun control, the tragedy in Pittsburgh, coming so quickly after the mail bombs and the killing of two African Americans in a grocery store outside Louisville, has also given way to a more fundamental battle over the rules and standards of political combat.

President Trump's misleading claims about the caravan of migrants headed toward the U.S. is a mirror image of his 2016 campaign tactics. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In charging that the media and Democratic protesters have been largely responsible for inciting hate, Trump and his allies have seemingly equated the influence of activists and journalists with the singular power and reach of the American presidency.

“The idea that Trump and conservatives share no blame for scaremongering on immigrants and the refugees is really ridiculous,” said William Kristol, a veteran conservative commentator and Trump critic who is Jewish — and was called a “loser” by Trump at a Saturday rally in Illinois. “A little dignity and cessation of ‘what-about-ism’ or ‘you-too-ism’ would be welcome.”

Trump’s approach to white nationalist movements has been routinely criticized, as has his dehumanizing language about undocumented immigrants and his nativist appeals. He said “both sides” were to blame for the deadly white supremacist rally last year in Charlottesville, which featured anti-Jewish chants.

Trump has repeatedly issued stark warnings about the thousands of Central American migrants headed to the United States in recent weeks, fueling concerns on the right about the caravan that have sparked conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism on fringe websites.

The accused synagogue gunman in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, is suspected of blanketing the Gab social media site with anti-Semitic postings, and has falsely accused the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps resettle refugees in American communities, of nefarious immigration efforts.

Mentions of Jewish influence have infused other conservative critiques of the migrants in bigger forums, such as the Fox Business Network, where a guest falsely stated in an interview with host Lou Dobbs on Thursday that the migrants are being funded by the “Soros-occupied State Department,” a reference to Democratic donor George Soros, who is Jewish.

Soros has been a regular feature in Republican attack ads ahead of the midterms, even after a bomb was found in his mailbox last week. Trump has also accused Soros, without evidence, of paying for protesters at his rallies.

A Fox Business Network executive, responding Sunday to the outcry over the segment, pulled the episode of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” from air and issued a statement saying “we condemn the rhetoric” of the guest, Chris Farrell, who works at the conservative group Judicial Watch, which has been praised by Trump.

Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said in a brief interview Sunday that “the [Farrell] statement isn’t anti-Semitic and Chris isn’t anti-Semitic. To suggest that is absurd. We are concerned about government funding of Mr. Soros, not his religion.”

Civil rights leaders on Sunday said they are concerned that these episodes are part of a growing national pattern of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism being lifted into the mainstream.

“Political candidates and people in public life now literally repeat the rhetoric of white supremacists,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump has denounced the violence and called for national unity. At the campaign rally in Illinois on Saturday night, Trump said “the scourge of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored, cannot be tolerated and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Some of Trump’s allies, however, said Sunday that he needs to do more to set the tone for the country and heal divisions rather than knocking the Democrats and others.

“The White House would say, well, listen, it’s on both sides, and the president’s just hitting back. And I understand that,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN. “And I think a lot of those tactics helped him win the presidency. But he’s now the leader of the free world. . . . I would love to see this stuff dialed back on both sides.”

But, for the most part Sunday, Republicans refused to accept responsibility for the flashes of violence that have become a national crisis.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) brought up last year’s attempted assassination of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and other GOP lawmakers by a former campaign volunteer for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), when pressed Sunday about whether Trump’s use of the word “globalist” to describe his political foes was misguided.

The term “globalist” has long been a euphemism for Jewish people among white nationalists and anti-Semites.

“I don’t see any connection where you would connect the president to this particular shooting, just like I wouldn’t see that connecting Democrats when a person walked up to a baseball game last year in Washington, D.C., and said, ‘Is this where the Republicans are practicing?’ and then opened fire on them simply because they were Republicans,” Lankford said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Inside the Trump administration, the president has been bolstered by officials and advisers who have followed his lead and assailed the media or contested assertions that Trump’s words deserve more scrutiny amid the violence.

Vice President Pence, in an interview with NBC News on Saturday night, defended Trump’s conduct.

“Everyone has their own style,” Pence said. “Frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences. But I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence.”

The GOP positioning comes as the party is facing an electoral reckoning on Nov. 6 in which its congressional majorities are at risk, in particular in dozens of suburban congressional districts where unease with Trump has put GOP-held seats in play.

Republican leaders on Sunday said they stood by the president, but they also urged him to be steady in his responses as the party works to win over skittish voters.

“I thought after the pipe bombs he initially set the right tone of unity and coming together. And I hope that he will continue on that path,” Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Democrats were far more forceful in calling out Trump as responsible for the country’s deep divisions.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” asked, “What kind of climate are we creating?”

“No one sets the tone more than the president of the United States,” Schiff said. “There’s no escaping the tone that he sets.”

Ever since the mail bombs were discovered last week, conservatives have been on edge about being blamed for the escalating political violence nationally and sought to cast Democrats and liberal activists as equally culpable.

“There is an equivalent. There is a man screaming at Mitch McConnell,” the Senate majority leader, “in the restaurant,” commentator Hugh Hewitt said on MSNBC on Friday about the political culture following the mail bomb scare.

Hewitt’s view that left-leaning groups outraged by Trump and the Republican agenda — or “mobs,” as they have been called by many Republicans — are threatening Republicans and contributing to the rise of violence nationally has become a core GOP message.

Countering insinuations of anti-Semitism has been another Republican priority in the wake of Saturday’s shooting.

“The best friends the Jewish people have are conservative Christians,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a Trump ally, said on Sunday in an interview. “Conservative, evangelical Christians are big, big supporters of Israel and the Jewish people. I often joke that I’m to the right of the Likud,” a conservative party in Israel.

Yet even those like King have encountered challenges in staking out that ground.

After meeting in August with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties during a European trip financed by a Holocaust memorial group, King faced criticism. 

King, in response, argued that the group does not have Nazi connections and maintained that he is not anti-Semitic.

David Nakamura, Paul Kane and Philip Bump contributed to this report.