The sentiment is there for many congressional Republicans, but not the actual words. They may never be, if Donald Trump’s repeated encounters with white supremacists and antisemites are not a collective bridge too far.
It turns out breaking up really is hard to do when it comes to Trump. Even as exit polling suggests some GOP voters cast ballots for some Democratic candidates last month, elected Republicans just cannot quit the former president.
Congressional Republicans are singing their own version of that tune this week as reporters pepper them with questions about Trump’s dinner meeting with a proud and vocal white supremacist and antisemite, Nick Fuentes. As your correspondent documented all week for subscribers to the CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter, some GOP lawmakers and officials across the fruited plains just cannot bring themselves to say Trump committed a racist blunder of epic proportions.
Even the 45th U.S. president’s old pal Benjamin Netanyahu, expected soon to return as Israel’s prime minister, finally said the words on Wednesday.
“Straight away, I thought that was just wrong and misplaced. And I think that that’s what I would say about President Trump’s decision to dine with this person — I think it’s wrong and misplaced,” Netanyahu told the Common Sense Substack newsletter. “I think it’s a mistake. He shouldn’t do that.”
Was that really that hard? For some GOP members and figures, apparently so. At the Capitol, some Republican members have quickly darted down narrow stairwells to avoid questions about Trump and antisemitism, aides struggling to keep up.
CQ Roll Call’s Ellyn Ferguson filed a dispatch Tuesday from outside the Senate GOP conference lunch meeting in the Capitol. She reported that former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was dining with his party mates before he introduced a former staffer, Jonathan McKernan, a nominee to become Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation director, at a Senate Banking Committee hearing Wednesday.
Corker was always media-friendly, one of the most accessible senators during his dozen years in the chamber. But not on Tuesday. Here is the choicest cut from eagle-eyed Ellyn’s dispatch: “He was warmly greeted by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. Corker suddenly darted into GOP lunch when reporter started to ask Trump-Fuentes question.”
What gives, even as GOP members and officials strongly condemn antisemitism?
“While Republican Senators are condemning antisemitism in strong terms, they are not specifically condemning Donald Trump because they are reluctant to be the subject of his wrath,” Brian Darling, a former senior aide to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in an email. He also called the Mar-a-Lago dinner meeting “reckless” but questioned if it “merit[s] the media coverage it has been given.”
If there is one thing Trump covets, it is media coverage. And Fuentes-gate has produced plenty.
Here was Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp on CNN Tuesday morning when asked about the Fuentes dinner at Mar-a-Lago: “I mean, that was a bad decision. There is no place for that in the Republican Party. I know he’s got his answer to that question, and I’ll let him speak to that. But my views on that are very clear.”
Kaitlan Collins, a former White House correspondent who often angered then-President Trump and his aides with tough questions, responded to Kemp by noting that Trump “hasn’t criticized or denounced the statements that we’ve seen, this hateful language, from Nick Fuentes.”
Kemp, who is working to get voters who supported him last month to turn out for Senate candidate Herschel Walker in the midterm runoff next week, would not even condemn Trump’s lack of condemnation: “Well, listen, I am not privy to who said what and all of that.”
Trump has been critical of the governor, but Kemp was careful to avoid criticizing the former president down the stretch in this cycle’s midterm elections that saw him cruise to reelection in the Peach State.
Rep. James R. Comer went a bit further, but it took a few television interviews. During his first crack at it, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, the Kentucky Republican said: “Well, he certainly needs better judgment in who he dines with.” A day later, CNN’s Jake Tapper noted in a separate interview with the incoming House Oversight Committee chairman: “I have to say, that’s not the strongest condemnation of a Holocaust denier that I have ever heard, congressman.”
Then came a conceptual condemnation, doused in some media-attacking what-aboutism.
“Well, obviously, I condemn it,” Comer said of the dinner. “And I can shed some light on why Republicans don’t immediately respond to many in the media every time they’re offended by something Trump does, is because a lot of Republicans believe there’s a double standard in the media. We have seen things that Ilhan Omar has said. We don’t get asked if we condemn that by the mainstream media.”
Notably, like Comer, many Republicans have criticized the dinner meeting without ever quite saying Trump made a mistake nor questioning why this sort of thing keeps happening — usually, like this time, followed by Trump denying that he knew a thing about it beforehand.
Democrats, meanwhile, say it’s just more of the same from some in the GOP.
“I mean, Trump is the leader of their party. They still don’t want to get in a public fight with him. I think every day he crosses a new line,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. “But this is a new kind of dangerous because this wing of the conservative movement isn’t even attempting to hide their antisemitism anymore. I mean, they’re proudly antisemitic.
“If the former president was a private citizen, you know, maybe I wouldn’t care as much who his dinner guests are. This was after he had announced he’s running for president again,” Murphy added. “He knows that it matters who he meets with, he knows that people take signals from the people that he associates with.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016, put it bluntly: “They’re afraid of Trump.”
Underscoring GOP members worrying about being primaried by a Trump-picked or -backed MAGA Republican, Kaine said, “There are so many people here who are so afraid of Donald Trump, and they feel like if they criticize him, that a huge portion of their party is loyal to Trump, even as Trump sits down with Holocaust deniers.”
While some midterms exit polls suggest the Trump fever among some Republican voters could be breaking, Fuentes-gate shows that is not true of Republicans who won their elections last month.
“I certainly see that in Virginia. Some of the people I know who have been strongly supportive of Trump are starting to feel like, ‘Well, maybe he’s got too much baggage.’ But I’d say that’s a quarter of the Trump loyalists,” Kaine said, adding about elected GOP members, “They want to, while not being Trump, make a play for the Trump voters.”
Season Four of “The Trump Show” is starting with a troubling romance storyline. Talk about plot twists.
So it was curious on Sunday when President Joe Biden, who describes Trump and his MAGA movement as a threat to America, declined to speak candidly about the former president hosting Fuentes. “You don’t want to know what I think,” he told reporters while shopping with his family in Nantucket, Mass.
The president and his staff did address the matter in a Friday tweet, using the official presidential Twitter account to say of antisemitism: “And instead of giving it a platform, our political leaders should be calling out and rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides.”