WASHINGTON ― If you thought that a racist refrain that erupted at a re-election rally for President Donald Trump on Wednesday would be met by quick denouncements from members of the president’s party, you’d once again be completely wrong.
Instead, the day began like so many others had on Capitol Hill when a controversy involving Trump is in the news: Republicans ducked, dodged and sometimes even literally ran from reporters who inquired about it.
“I seriously have got to get ready for this hearing,” Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said Thursday when asked to comment about the matter.
Trump attempted to distance himself from the refrain on Thursday, telling reporters he was “not happy” with the crowd and claimed that he had tried to cut them off from shouting “send her back” at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The freshman congresswoman immigrated to the United States as a refugee when she was a child.
In fact, Trump waited 13 seconds, until the chants stopped, to start speaking again. He did not disavow it at the time and continued on with his stump speech. Nor did he delete the racist tweets that the crowd echoed in their chant.
Republican lawmakers were initially hesitant to condemn the chant Thursday morning, stating they could not do so until they’d seen footage of the event. (They often employ that line when a bombastic Trump comment makes headlines). Some defended Trump, arguing that he doesn’t bear responsibility for being unable to control the crowds at his rallies, which are often loud and rambunctious.
“A group of people chanted, he didn’t ask them to chant it. You can’t control that any more than you can control the reaction at a rock concert,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who attended the rally with the president, told HuffPost on Thursday.
“People chant what they want. I’d rather attack ideas than people,” added Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) expressed skepticism that Trump heard the crowd at all, however. Of course, Trump’s comments later on Thursday ruled out that scenario.
Nowhere was their reluctance to break with Trump more evident than when, just before walking into a caucus lunch, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) threw his hands into the air out of seeming exasperation when asked about the rally.
“I don’t know what to tell you about chants at a political rally,” Thune said. “I wish everyone would tone it down.”
When a reporter noted Trump had disavowed the chant moments before, Thune, who did not appear to be aware of the president’s comments, said, “Well, that’s good.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the lone African American Republican in the Senate, initially said he had “too much going on” to respond to the matter when asked about it Thursday morning. But after the president spoke later in the day, the South Carolina senator had a different response.
“Do I have any concerns? I think the president said he didn’t like the response,” Scott told HuffPost when asked if he was bothered by the chants.
Not everyone was slow to offer a condemnation, but it came from familiar voices. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she found the chant “extraordinarily offensive.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another frequent critic of the president, said it was “very unfortunate and do not speak well of that crowd.”
The back-and-forth between Trump and Omar, as well as three other progressive Democratic congresswomen whom the president slammed with racist tweets over the weekend, seemed to depress some GOP senators.
“I’m not playing this game anymore,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a video he posted to his Twitter account, laying blame on both sides for fueling the outrage. “This is what gets attention. You don’t get attention in politics for saying meaningful stuff. You get attention for saying things that draw clicks and eyeballs.”
The Florida Republican did, however, denounce the chants Wednesday as “grotesque.”
Trump’s biggest defenders on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, continued to insist he wasn’t being personally racist by hurling vitriolic attacks Omar and the other congresswomen of color. To back up the assertion, they argued Omar would have been welcomed with the president on stage Wednesday if she had supported him and wore his signature red cap with the words “Make America Great Again” emblazoned on it.
“I don’t think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back. If you’re a racist, you want everybody from Somalia to go back,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) agreed.
“Her race is irrelevant,” he said.
Asked if that then meant one must support Trump in order to not be urged to leave the country, Cramer said, “No.”
“One thing about this president ― if you punch at him, he punches back,” he said. “He just has a bigger punch. I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, but that’s what he does. I’m just always surprised that people are surprised.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Kevin Cramer was a senator from Nebraska. He is from North Dakota.