WASHINGTON -- House Speaker John Boehner insisted he knows what's in the heart of his embattled House Republican whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, and stood behind the Louisiana Republican who has come under fire for a 2002 speech to a white supremacist group.
Boehner, who said earlier that the speech to a group affiliated with David Duke was an "error of judgement," repeated that opinion Wednesday, when questions about the third-ranking Republican in the House dominated the GOP's first news conference of the new Congress.
Scalise spoke to the group when he was a Louisiana state lawmaker, and Boehner suggested that it would be easy for anyone in such a circumstance to mistakenly address an organization that may have distasteful views.
"I, like Mr. Scalise, served in the state legislature," Boehner said. "I remember my freshman term in the state legislature when I had a half of a staffer. You get asked to speak to a lot of groups. I think Mr. Scalise made it clear that he made an error in judgement. He spoke to a group, not clear who they actually were."
Asked why he would keep Scalise on his leadership team when Democrats were sure to continue making an issue of Scalise meeting with a racist group, Boehner simply affirmed Scalise's character.
"Now, I know this man. I work with him. I know what’s in his heart. He’s a decent honest person who made a mistake. We’ve all made mistakes," Boehner said.
For his part, Scalise did not explain why he spoke to the group, referring reporters to his previous statements on the issue, which do not explain how he knew the group.
"I reject bigotry of all forms," Scalise said. "The people that know me best, both here and more especially back home ... who know the truth and know what’s in my heart, they’re the ones who can speak the best," he said, shortly before Boehner spoke.
Duke said on his radio show recently that Scalise "echoed a lot of my ideology and my policies -- no question about it.”