Written by: Sheryl Gay Stolberg
After years of turning a blind eye to Rep. Steve King’s inflammatory statements and racist behavior, Republicans decided this week they had enough after King asked The New York Times when phrases like white supremacy and white nationalism had become offensive.
But even as they piled on their condemnation, President Donald Trump had used Twitter to mock Sen. Elizabeth Warren for not announcing her presidential exploratory committee at Wounded Knee or Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.
Now King — a Republican from Iowa who once said that unauthorized immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” — is persona non grata in his party, even as Trump continues to paint the same migrants as rapists, drug dealers and importers of mayhem.
That disconnect has provided fodder for Democrats, who are eager to paint Republicans as hypocritical, and for Republicans in the never-Trump camp who see the president as an existential threat to the party. It also exposes the challenge that Republicans face in the Trump era, as they try to court Latino voters while not running afoul of a president who has made demonizing immigrants a core component of his populist appeal.
“Look, it’s been my practice for the last couple of years not to make random observations about the president’s tweeting and other things,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters Tuesday, shortly before the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution that cited King in condemning white supremacy. “Congressman King clearly uttered words that are unacceptable in America today.”
McConnell, who has suggested that King find another line of work, was not the only party leader trying to separate Trump from King. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who stripped King of his committee assignments, suggested it was not his place to rebuke Trump because the president is not a member of the House Republican Conference. (In fact, the House has the authority to rebuke or censure the president.)
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, another member of the Republican leadership, said much the same: “I think this is about our language inside here. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be disciplining the president. He’s in a different branch than we are.”
Republicans are used to agonizing over how to handle the president’s offensive comments and racially inflammatory remarks. His comments after the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he said there were “fine people on both sides,” sent party leaders scurrying for cover, even as they took care not to criticize Trump directly.
“We must be clear,” Paul Ryan, then the speaker of the House, wrote on Twitter at the time. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
And after the president’s tweet Sunday night about Wounded Knee infuriated Native American leaders in his state, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, issued a mild rebuke of the president.
“I wish he wouldn’t tweet as much,” Thune told reporters, adding, “That’s obviously a very sensitive part of our state’s history. So yeah, I wish he’d stay away from it.”
But generally, elected Republicans have let the president slide.
“They know on some level that their defense of Trump is morally unsupportable, and so when they get a chance to speak out against Steve King, who doesn’t have any power over them and doesn’t pose a threat to them, a lot of them are falling over themselves to condemn him,” said Peter Wehner, who advised President George W. Bush on domestic policy. “But you can’t condemn Steve King and not condemn Donald Trump and pretend that you’re doing the right moral and ethical thing.”
In King, Republicans seem happy to have found an opportunity to condemn racism without attacking the president. After taking a beating in the 2018 midterm elections — which produced a freshman Republican class that is almost entirely white and male and boosted the share of white men in the House Republican Conference to 90 percent — Republicans are also well aware that the party needs to overhaul its image.
Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist, sounded the warning alarm about King even before the 2016 presidential election in his book, “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America.” In it, he argued that demographic changes were threatening the party’s survival, and he laid out the case for a platform of free markets, individual liberty and a strong defense that he believes will appeal to Americans of all races and ethnicities.
In an interview, Ayres noted that Bush won nearly 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, while his brother Jeb Bush carried about 60 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 1998 when he became governor of Florida. Trump won 28 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2016.
“I have a litany of Republicans who have done well,” Ayres said, “but you can’t do well running against brown people.”
Then Trump won the White House, upending Ayres’ argument, though he said that the case he made “won’t be wrong in the long term.” Now, Trump’s critics within the party say that no overhaul can be complete without denouncing the president.
Michael Gerson, who was the top speechwriter for Bush, published an opinion article in The Washington Post this week that carried the headline, “Republicans Need to Condemn Trump’s Brazen Bigotry.”
Wehner agreed. After Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said Tuesday on television that King’s comment’s were “absolutely abhorrent” and “racist,” Wehner took to Twitter: “I wonder if Liz Cheney would say the same thing about Donald Trump?” he wrote.
But some Republicans say they cannot be the word police, and they wrestle with where to draw the line when considering what sort of speech is offensive enough to be worthy of repudiation. “Does every statement made by a member of the House or an elected official warrant action on the floor?” asked Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. “If it did, that’s all we’d be doing.”
While he said he found King’s comments “unacceptable,” Diaz-Balart noted that Democrats were in no rush to condemn Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a freshman from Michigan, after she used a vulgarity to call for the impeachment of the president.
Others insisted that the president’s comments have not been as offensive as those of King’s.
“It’s just very different — the context of what is said, the way of what is said, it’s very different,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a close ally of the president’s. “I’m not going to go back and go through all of his quotes, but it’s very different.”