On Monday morning, however, all was calm, after one of the more overtly racist attacks of Donald Trump’s presidency: a declaration that four minority congresswomen—three of them born in the United States—should return to the countries from which they came.
According to two people familiar with the situation, the president’s reelection campaign wasn’t busying itself gaming out a comms or damage-control strategy, beyond a few tweets that focused on lashing out at Democrats and media outlets. Neither was the Republican National Committee. Inside the White House, senior officials—who in the past two years have developed thick calluses toward Trump’s social media outbursts—mostly shrugged off the latest firestorm. According to one top aide, it was merely “another day at work.”
“I’d say we are taking defending the president seriously, but I don’t think anyone is freaking out,” another senior White House official noted.
The business-as-usual ethos inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was just the latest illustration of the degree to which Trump has normalized a brand of chaos and open bigotry—in this case, insinuating that female freshmen members of Congress are not real Americans despite being U.S. citizens. It also underscored one of the president’s more definable traits: an ability to simply plow through self-created political wildfires that would have destroyed his predecessors.
A similar moment took place a year ago, during his fiasco in Helsinki when Trump stood with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin at a joint press conference and once again cast doubt on his own intelligence officials’ conclusions on 2016 election interference. The moment provoked criticism from Republican lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who slammed Trump’s performance as “disgraceful,” and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who said it “saddened” him.
But shortly after he flew back home, as he sat in the White House and monitored media coverage of the aftermath, Trump was intent on keeping people in line far more than introspection. He asked his comms staff which prominent Republicans they’d seen harshly condemning Trump’s overseas presser. And after he was briefed on the negative responses, including those from Corker and McCain, he tartly replied: “So nobody that matters?” before turning his attention back to the television and pointing and clicking his remote, according to a source who was present at the time.
By any consequential measure, the president was right. Helsinki became just another blip on the 24-hour news cycle, a blemish on his record that passed almost as fast as it first came. The vast majority of Republicans knew that crossing the president simply wasn’t worth it.
This week, Trump is running the exact same playbook, confident that his party will remain firmly the party of Trump. And the president, for his part, wasn’t content to just stay calm. Loudly, he doubled, and then tripled, down.
“They’re complaining all the time,” the president told reporters at a White House event on Monday, expanding on his racist weekend Twitter salvos against progressive Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). “Very simply, you can leave. You can leave right now. Come back if you want, don’t come back, that’s OK too. But if you’re not happy, you can leave… I’m sure that there will be many people that won’t miss them.”
The comments come at a time of Trump’s announced nationwide raids on undocumented immigrants, as well as his new asylum plan that could pose the biggest threat to migrants of his presidency. The recent events also underscore a harsh, obvious reality: No matter how severe the racist swipe, the unhinged tirade, the alleged malfeasance, the destructive policy, or the crippling scandal, the modern-day Republican Party will not abandon Donald J. Trump—and the president knows it.
By Monday, however, it was clear that Trump’s latest tirade had provoked more GOP pushback than the usual spat does—though that pushback was so tepid or qualified as to prove largely meaningless.
Among the Republican lawmakers who went out of their way to denounce the comments, Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), the only black Republican in the House, offered one of the strongest rebukes, calling Trump’s words “racist” and “xenophobic.”
Most of the Republicans who spoke out made sure to balance their criticism of Trump with (sometimes tougher) criticism for the Democratic women. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) tweeted that Trump was “wrong to suggest” the congresswomen were not American, but added he “couldn’t disagree more with these congresswomen’s views.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), said in a statement that Trump should take down the tweet—after calling the lawmakers’ views “anti-Semitic,” among other things.
And Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only black Republican in the Senate, suggested Trump’s remarks served to take the focus away from “serious issues” in the Democratic Party around race. “Instead of sharing how the Democratic Party’s far-left, pro-socialist policies… are wrong for the future of our nation,” said Scott, “the President interjected with unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language.”
But the key GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House GOP leader and presidential pal Kevin McCarthy, were silent in the wake of the president’s latest rants. And at least one lawmaker piped up in defense of Trump’s remarks: Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) went on a local radio show Monday morning and attempted to spin them by saying the president intended to tell the first-year congresswomen to go back home—to their congressional districts.
By late Monday afternoon, roughly a dozen House Republicans—out of 197—had publicly condemned the president’s remarks in some way. About half a dozen Senate Republicans had, while the vast majority of their 53-member caucus kept mum.
Within Team Trump, defenses of the president generally vacillated between three categories: He didn’t mean it, or he was right to say it, or he was just being funny, you humorless libs.
“It’s not uncommon for POTUS to tweet tongue-in-cheek 2drive home very obvious narratives,” Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign senior adviser, posted to Twitter on Sunday. “These ‘progressive women’ spend their time advocating for nations of their heritage & others instead of representing US while on our tax payroll - so bye.”
Still, some Trump allies couldn’t help but seem weary at the president’s insistence on inserting himself into this news cycle in this particular manner. “As the left insist it’s racism, the right insist the Fab 4 are anti-American. A good time for all,” former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a Trump surrogate, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “But most of us wish Trump had not jumped into the center of the Democrat circular firing squad.”