Republican lawmakers this weekend took President Donald Trump to task over what they deemed a weak response to white supremacist groups and violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., the latest sign that Trump’s grip on the party may be weakening.
The outspoken group included past Trump antagonists such as Sens. Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio, but it also included prominent conservative voices who aren’t known as fierce critics of the administration, such as Sens. Orrin Hatch and Cory Gardner.
The Republicans joined civil rights leaders and Democrats who reacted angrily when Trump said Saturday he condemned "this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides — on many sides.” His repetition of “many sides” struck critics as seeming to equate the white supremacist groups who organized the rally with counter-protesters, though the White House later sought to recast his statement to be more critical of hate groups.
One woman was killed and more injured Saturday when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters. Police later charged a man who had been photographed holding a symbol of one of the groups that organized the Charlottesville event, the Associated Press reported.
“This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame,” Gardner, a Coloradoan who is considered a rising star in the party, said on CNN Sunday.
“This president has done an incredible job of naming terrorism around the globe as evil,” Gardner continued. “He has said and called it out time and time again. And this president needs to do exactly that today.”
"We should call evil by its name," Hatch, the Utah Republican, wrote on Twitter Saturday.
The rift over Trump’s response to the Charlottesville violence was just the latest example of members of his party starting to carefully take on a president whose words and actions many chose to overlook after his surprise 2016 victory. Those schisms — including criticism of his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his recent public berating of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — could make it harder for the White House to work with its counterparts on a slew of policy priorities this fall.
The critical tweets and television interviews do not mean Republicans are turning on the president just yet. And Republicans have criticized Trump before. After the release of the “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent, many lawmakers said they could no longer support him; Gardner said he would not vote for him. Still, Republicans worked with Trump anyway after he took the White House.
“The Republican politicians still fear the Trump base in their own districts and states,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, located in Charlottesville. “When he goes down to where Nixon and Truman were, in the mid to low 20s in the polls, then they will start waving bye-bye to him.”
But the reactions to Trump’s recent actions have evolved from earlier in the administration. For example, after Trump in May fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, Republicans on Capitol Hill tried to avoid reporters’ questions rather go on the record criticizing his decision.
By midday Sunday, the White House released a statement that attempted to clarify the president’s earlier remarks on Charlottesville, though the president himself has not spoken again.
"The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK Neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together,” an unnamed White House spokesman said in a statement.
The president condemned the violence “and didn’t dignify the names of these groups of people, but rather addressed the fundamental issue," White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert told CNN.
That was after waves of criticism, including from Trump’s 2016 campaign rivals such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who urged the Department of Justice to investigate the events in Charlottesville, which it promised to do late Saturday evening. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also ran for president in 2016 and whose daughter works in the West Wing, and 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney also denounced racial prejudice.
Fissures between Republicans and Trump have been showing up with greater regularity, as the president faces a low approval rating and no major legislative accomplishments.
GOP lawmakers chafed when Trump publicly admonished Sessions for recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 campaign. Sessions said it was necessary given his role in Trump’s presidential campaign, but Trump said he would have picked a different attorney general if he’d known the recusal was coming.
Republican lawmakers and a bevy of conservative groups, from law enforcement advocacy organizations to Tea Party advocates to the Family Research Council, rushed to the defense of the former senator.
More recently, Trump broke standard party protocol by publicly criticizing McConnell for failing to pass legislation eliminating the 2010 Obamacare law. Trump even suggested that McConnell should step down from his leadership post — something the president has no control over — if McConnell does not deliver the votes to pass tax reform or an infrastructure package.
The party had already fractured over its attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump offered little support or cover for both House and Senate lawmakers to take what many deemed tough votes. The effort died in the Senate due to three “no” votes by Sens. John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski over concerns about the secretive process during which the health care bill was written and the cuts it would make to Medicaid.
When lawmakers return from vacation in September, they will face a bevy of thorny challenges — raising the nation’s debt ceiling, approving a budget for the federal government, and tackling tricky policies like tax reform. While it’s premature to assume the Republican rifts will sink any of those efforts, the insistent paper cuts for the fledgling administration could imperil them — and further erode Trump’s diminished political base.