After President Trump insulted one of their own as a “nasty guy,” many House Republicans dodged and weaved when questioned this week about the president’s takedown of Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.).
“I wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t a big deal,” said Rep. Jason Lewis (Minn.).
“It was a couple days long enough ago, and I didn’t know Mark, so I didn’t pay much attention to it,” said Rep. John Curtis (Utah).
“You know, it’s a long conference, I don’t remember,” said Rep. Andy Harris (Md.).
“I’m trying to think if I was even there when all that occurred,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), who nearly a decade ago shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a nationally televised address to Congress.
Republicans’ unwillingness to challenge Trump underscores how he can disparage and then mischaracterize what he said with little pushback from his party. Few held his feet to the fire to speak the truth, fearful of a president who belittles his critics and the political peril they might face.
In a closed-door House meeting Tuesday night on immigration, Trump said sarcastically of Sanford’s recent primary loss, “I want to congratulate him on running a great race!” The remark was met with awkward silence from more than 200 Republicans.
Trump then piled on, saying, “What, nobody gets it,” and called Sanford a “nasty guy,” according to several lawmakers who were in the room. There were boos and some nervous laughter.
The next day, Trump tweeted, “Had a great meeting with the House GOP last night at the Capitol. They applauded and laughed loudly when I mentioned my experience with Mark Sanford. I have never been a fan of his!”
A few Republicans disputed Trump’s characterization, calling it false. But though not a single lawmaker of the two dozen questioned by The Washington Post backed up Trump’s claim that they “applauded and laughed loudly” as he dissed Sanford, very few were willing to call out the president for creating an alternate reality.
That’s a worrisome trend in the eyes of some Trump critics, who figure that if a room full of witnesses won’t confront Trump on an inaccurate depiction, he might get away with pretty much any mischaracterization he wants.
“There is something big about that tweet, irrelevant to the tweet itself but symptomatic of the larger amnesia that we’re collectively in as a society,” said Sanford, who wasn’t in the room that night.
In the Capitol, a sizable number of Republicans ducked reporters’ questions about the president’s tweet. They checked their phones or ran onto the House floor before reporters could finish their questions. Others claimed that they didn’t hear Trump talk about Sanford or, despite the fact the meeting took place less than 48 hours before, that they couldn’t remember it.
“Yesterday? The president didn’t talk to the group yesterday,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said when asked by a reporter who mistakenly referred to the Tuesday meeting as “yesterday.” He then ducked into an area off-limits for reporters.
“Look, I don’t get into discussions about what happened in conference, particularly on conversations with the president,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “But what I do know is, Mark Sanford is a good guy. . . . I wanted Mark to win. I wish he’d still stay in Congress.”
Sanford is a member of the Freedom Caucus.
“I would just say, this president has done so many good things for this country, and to take that incident, as unfortunate as it is, it’s — look at the positive that he’s done,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.), who wasn’t at the meeting but had heard all about it.
There definitely wasn’t widespread laughter, said Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.), a Trump supporter, but there were some laughs. “You know how he is when he talks,” Kelly said. “He’s a very energetic, entertaining person.”
Trump, in his tweet, suggested Republicans were wildly supportive as he insulted Sanford. Not true, said GOP lawmakers who were more forthcoming with reporters about what happened.
“I read that, and I’m like, there’s no fricking way that that’s what happened,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (Pa.), who is retiring in part because he says Trump made his political life harder.
“There was absolutely no applause,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho).
“Silence,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (Nev.).
Trump “makes up a lot of things,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones (N.C.). “I think when people found out what he was saying . . . they were very upset, but they didn’t know how to react.”
Among many Republicans, no one wants to be the next Sanford.
The six-term congressman, who spent eight years as South Carolina’s governor between his two stints in the House, was already struggling in his primary with an upstart challenger this month when Trump tweeted hours before the polls closed that voters should kick him out. Trump even referenced an affair Sanford had a decade ago.
Sanford lost, becoming just the second sitting member of Congress to do so this election season. He acknowledged that Trump’s tweet pushed him over the cliff.
That’s why Sanford was sympathetic to his colleagues who would rather duck the truth than stand up to the president: “There is a self-preservation component, where people don’t want to get run over by the train, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “You have those folks who say: ‘I see what happened to Sanford. I don’t really want that tweet in my district.’ ”
Voters in the Republicans’ base are loyal to Trump, without any particular adherence to GOP orthodoxy. And with every election like Sanford’s, lawmakers recognize just how powerful Trump’s Twitter account is.
“That tweet, and what it represents, is the reason that I spoke up as I did prior to the election and the reason I will continue to speak up post-election. We’re playing with real fire in a reason-based republic,” Sanford said.
Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.