By Kyle Cheney and John Bresnahan
June 14, 2016
Donald Trump’s combative anti-terrorism speech Monday flouted the typical post-tragedy script and left Republican insiders fretting that the business mogul is unprepared to play a crucial presidential role: national healer.
Some wondered whether he failed to harness a moment to elevate himself and pass what one Republican called the “desk test” — the ability to picture Trump in the Oval Office in a time of crisis. And on Capitol Hill, his renewed call for a ban on Muslim immigration drew quick condemnations from GOP lawmakers, even as they struggled to stand by their presumptive nominee.
It was the latest display of the party's conundrum of how to deal with their unpredictable standard-bearer whose views they often don't share. Many Republicans appeared downright fatigued by the almost daily exercise of Trump saying something provocative or worse, and them having to answer questions about it.
Several lawmakers opted to remain silent, apparently hoping this latest controversy would wash away with the next news cycle. But for others, Trump's response to the deadliest mass shooting in American history prompted renewed doubts about whether he carries "the kind of sensitivity or understanding of ... a president’s role,” as Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist, put it.
A day after a gunman who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State mowed down 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Trump spent Monday morning skewering the Obama administration’s handling of terrorism and even suggested President Barack Obama might sympathize with Islamic extremists. He followed that by reissuing his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the United States — but expanding it to include regions he deems to be hotbeds of terrorism — and suggesting American Muslims were turning a blind eye to potential terrorists within their communities.
The speed with which Trump moved, as well as the immediate reaction by Democrats and the media, forced Republicans to develop a response in Trump's wake. While this disconnect often happens between a presidential nominee and the party leadership in Congress, it's far worse with Trump than in previous cycles. Trump's media-driven campaign helps him get his message out, but it leaves every other Republican scrambling to figure out how to live in a Trump-centric world.
"[Trump] just blows up everything we want to do," said a senior GOP lawmaker, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Every time you turn around, he's said something new. It's impossible for us to keep up."
The proposed ban on Muslim immigrants had already been rejected by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress. But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said again he wouldn't support it, and that he had no interest in seeing it get a vote.
"You don't ban somebody on race [or] religion," McCarthy said. "I don't see that coming to the floor."
McCarthy, like other Republicans, also rejected Trump's suggestion that Obama should resign over the Orlando shooting, though he did criticize the president for not being forceful enough.
"I think there's a lot of answers that need to be known before we do anything," McCarthy said. "We have talked for so long about the challenge of terrorism. The president has talked about containing them, but they need to be defeated."
Hill Republicans expressed concern over everything from the tone of Trump’s remarks to their substantive impact.
“I think you have to be a little careful with the rhetoric,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said of Trump’s renewed call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. “You don’t want to inflame or help the recruiting efforts.”
Many Republicans earlier in the day had expressed hope that Trump would scrap the red meat in favor of a unifying posture that might help him shed the controversies that dogged him in recent weeks — from ripping an American-born judge as biased because of his Mexican heritage to bad headlines surrounding Trump University. The response to Orlando, they hoped, could be the first step in his effort to appeal to moderate Republicans and disaffected Democrats wary of a Trump presidency.
Instead, Trump delivered a meandering address in which he raised the specter of thousands of murderous Muslims streaming into the United States because of lax screening procedures. Less than two hours after Hillary Clinton delivered a speech that didn’t mention Trump at all, he panned her leadership and suggested a Clinton presidency would all but welcome terrorists onto U.S. shores.
“Saying nothing would have been better,” said one member of the Republican National Committee. “Every Senate candidate will be forced to answer for Trump's bizarre response. ... His lack of empathy is jarring.”
In fact, Democratic Senate candidates around the country blasted out press releases calling on their Republican rivals to reject Trump’s maligning of Obama’s allegiance.
“Donald Trump’s comments today were appalling, divisive and deeply offensive,” said Democratic Pennsylvania Senate challenger Katie McGinty. “I call on Senator [Pat] Toomey to join me in strongly denouncing Donald Trump’s offensive remarks immediately.”
On the whole, though, Hill Republicans were muted in response to Trump’s remarks. Texas Sen. John Cornyn refused to respond to questions about the GOP standard-bearer’s handling of the response to the Orlando attacks. “There you go again, asking about Trump,” he said. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said he had no thoughts on Trump’s call for Obama’s resignation and reiterated his critique of Trump’s immigration ban.
“It’s not a good one,” he said.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who’s helming the GOP effort to keep control of the Senate, also declined to comment. “I'm not gonna make a career out of responding to every comment and every tweet,” he told reporters after a leadership meeting.
Trump’s defenders highlighted less inflammatory aspects of his speech or turned it into an indictment of the Obama administration for refusing to describe recent attacks as motivated by “radical Islam,” a prominent theme in Trump’s remarks.
“The one thing I agree with [Trump on ] is ... you’ve got to define the enemy to defeat it and this administration just won’t,” McCaul said. “The reluctance on the part of the administration is always sort of baffling to me.”
"I would ask the president for a strategy," added Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who struggled to conceal an eye roll when asked about Trump's comments. "We've never seen one from (Obama) and I don't know how you expect to go forward with any kind of plans to complete a mission unless you have guidance from a commander-in-chief."
Pete Hoekstra, a former Michigan congressman and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s speech is about “selling more of the American Dream.”
“What he believes, and what I believe, is that radical Islam is a threat to the American way of life,” he said. “And this is not just about providing national security. This is about protecting the American citizen. This is about protecting the values of the West.”
Hoekstra, a former John Kasich supporter, said Trump has helped give voice to his efforts to highlight the danger of "radical Islam" to America — and he supports Trump’s call for restrictions on immigration, too.
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