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Vulnerable senators offer mixed reviews of Trump in crisis

Some in GOP praise leadership, others defend right to protest

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is among the Republicans who will face pressure to support a larger aid package for local and state communities and their employees.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is among the Republicans who will face pressure to support a larger aid package for local and state communities and their employees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators with the toughest reelection fights offered varying levels of criticism Tuesday for President Donald Trump’s hard-line approach to demonstrators, reflecting the tightrope that Republicans especially walk when it comes to the commander in chief.  

Trump on Monday declared himself the law-and-order president and said he would use the military against citizens to combat violence and looting, and some of his fellow Republicans praised his leadership. But others defended the right to protest, called for efforts to calm rather than inflame tensions, or urged systemic change following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Democrats running in states that Trump won in 2016, meanwhile, said the president had gone too far and said matters should be left in the hands of civilian authorities.

The senators spoke as the chamber returned to Washington for votes on nominations and possible changes to pandemic relief measures.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican whose longtime reputation as an independent-minded lawmaker has ebbed during the Trump era, took a sharp tone against the president.

“To me, at a time like this, the president ought to be trying to calm the nation,” Collins said.

She was particularly critical of the Trump administration’s apparent effort Monday evening to remove peaceful demonstrators near a church by the White House where the president and many of his aides gathered for photos and where Trump offered brief remarks.   

“It was painful to watch peaceful protestors to be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once,” Collins added. “All of us are upset at the fire that was set at the church, a historic house of worship for many, many presidents. But I thought that the president came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peacefully protest.”

Montana Republican Steve Daines endorsed Trump’s leadership approach. 

Daines, whose race for a second Senate term against Gov. Steve Bullock is another one of the most competitive, said he was “grateful for the president’s leadership,” according to a tweet from NBC News’ Kasie Hunt.

‘Cooling temperatures‘

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who has at times supported Trump while other times has taken a more moderate approach, did not say whether he supported the idea of using military force on demonstrators. 

“The thing we’ve got to focus on is cooling temperatures, listen to the valid concerns that the demonstrators have,” Tillis said. He added that he wanted to separate “that large group of people that are looking for systemic change that I agree with from the small group that are devastating businesses, they’re hurting people, they’re assaulting police officers. And at some point you just cannot let that violence escalate.”

Inside Elections rates North Carolina Senate as a Tossup. 

Sen. Joni Ernst, a military veteran and Republican from Iowa, said that governors should have the ability to call in the National Guard. Inside Elections rates her race as Lean Republican. 

Cory Gardner, another vulnerable GOP senator from Colorado, said that “peaceful assembly is a right” when asked about the protesters who were removed from near the White House on Monday.  

“Here’s what we have to have happen in this country, that No. 1, we have to recognize that the murder of George Floyd has to result in real change that we can simply no longer have this kind of murder, inequality, injustice occur,” Gardner said. “No. 2, we have to recognize the protesters have the right to be heard.”

He added that the violence needed to end. “We’ll get through this as a nation, if we work together,” he said.

Inside Elections rates the Colorado Senate race as Tilt Democratic. 

Democrats oppose

Two vulnerable Senate Democrats, both of whom serve on the Armed Services Committee, did not hold back from criticizing the president even though they are running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016.

Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable incumbent in 2020, told CQ Roll Call that Trump “showed a complete lack of leadership.” Trump carried Alabama by 28 points in 2016 and Inside Elections sees Jones as an underdog, rating the race Lean Republican.  

Jones, who attended a “rally for justice” in Alabama over the weekend, said Trump’s threat to use military force to quell protests and riots in the U.S. was “inappropriate.”

“I don’t think that we are anywhere close to that,” Jones said. “I think cooler heads are beginning to prevail. That’s what we need to see. I think governors and police chiefs across the country are stepping up to do the right thing and that is to listen to the people that are out there.”

Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, who is running in a state Trump carried by less than half a point, said Trump’s suggestion to use military force was “totally inappropriate.”  

“We should be relying on local civilian law enforcement to deal with the protest and certainly his actions of using tear gas to clear peaceful protesters to have to get a photo op, this is simply unacceptable,” said Peters, a veteran of the Navy Reserves who will face Republican John James. James, who is African American, is a former Apache helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army.

Inside Elections rates the Michigan Senate race Lean Democratic.

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