Speaking on Wednesday at a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, the newly impeached president joked that the deceased Democratic lawmaker might be “looking up” at everyone, implying that he could be in hell. Dingell, who died in February this year, was the longest-serving member of Congress.
At the time of the remark, Trump was complaining that Dingell’s widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), had voted to impeach him even though he’d provided “A+ treatment” when her husband died and she had thanked him profusely.
Dingell responded to the comment a short time after, saying that Trump’s words “brought me down in a way you can never imagine” as she prepares for her first holiday season “without the man I love.”
The president’s comment drew bipartisan condemnation, including from Michigan Republicans Fred Upton and Paul Mitchell, both of whom voted against impeachment on Wednesday.
“I’ve always looked up to John Dingell - my good friend and a great Michigan legend. There was no need to ‘dis’ him in a crass political way. Most unfortunate and an apology is due,” Upton tweeted.
“To use his name in such a dishonorable manner at last night’s rally is unacceptable from anyone, let alone the President of the United States,” Mitchell wrote.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham responded to the outrage on ABC News by claiming the president was just “riffing.”
When asked if Trump would apologize, Grisham said, “I haven’t spoken to the president about that, but I would say that I am very, very sorry for her loss.” She reiterated that the president had done “everything he could” to honor John Dingell.
“He has been under attack ... I think that the president is a counter-puncher; it was a very, very supportive and wild crowd, and he was just riffing on some of the things that have been happening the past few days,” Grisham said.
White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley complained to Fox News that people were just focusing on negative things the president says.
Gidley said Trump has “great respect” for both Dingells and had expressed his condolences for John Dingell’s death, but that “no matter what the president says,” people are going to “parse it apart” and “focus on the most negative.”
When Fox News analyst Juan Williams said on “The Five” Thursday that he didn’t like Trump’s comment, co-host Greg Gutfeld defended it as a “joke,” adding that the president doesn’t discriminate when it comes to whom he insults.
“Trump doesn’t see live, dead, black, white, male, female. He insults everybody,” Gutfeld said.
Ex-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president on Fox News as “a fighter.”
“He’s never going to take a punch and not punch back,” she said. “If anybody else was in his position, I think they would be curled up in a ball on the floor in their office most days.”