Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that President Donald Trump isn’t “a racist,” but sidestepped questions of whether Trump’s attacks on four non-white members of Congress were.
McConnell, who had been silent for two days as Trump tweeted that the members of Congress should “go back” to their home countries, offered a mild rebuke, while spreading blame for the bitter political discourse beyond Trump.
“From the president, to the speaker to freshmen members of the House, all of us have a responsibility to elevate the public discourse,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters. “Our words do matter. We all know politics is a combat sport, but it’s about time we lowered the temperature all across the board.”
McConnell, who is running for re-election with a message tightly tied to support of Trump, has long been reluctant to publicly criticize the president.
The Kentucky Republican insisted Tuesday that the problem with coarse political language extends far beyond Trump, who tweeted Sunday that the congresswomen should “go back” to their home countries, even though all four are U.S. citizens and three were born in the U.S.
Asked whether he would consider it a racist insult if someone were to say his wife, Taiwan-born Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, should “go back” home, McConnell turned it into a defense of legal immigration, which he called a “fulfilling of the American dream,” noting that Chao arrived as an 8-year-old who didn’t speak any English and now serves in the Cabinet.
He chuckled when reporters asked him if he would ever tell someone to “go back” to their home countries, saying immigration has “invigorated” the country.
“I’m obviously a big fan of legal immigration,” he said, referring to his marriage to Chao. “It’s been a big part of my family for a quarter of a century.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who is among the group of younger congresswomen targeted by Trump, lashed out at McConnell in an interview with ABC, saying he was “complicit in advancing racism in America” if he could not muster “the backbone” to criticize the president.
Ocasio-Cortez, who like Trump was born in a New York City borough, said telling American citizens — who are duly elected members of Congress — to go back to their countries “has everything to do with race,” harkening back to a taunt used against immigrants.
Challenged as to whether Trump would be more likely to tone down his remarks if Republican leaders spoke more forcefully, McConnell reiterated that “everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric. We have examples of that across the ideological spectrum in the country.”
House Republican leaders earlier declined to condemn Trump’s remarks, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, telling reporters that it was “all about politics and beliefs of ideologies.”
McConnell, too, accused Democrats of engaging in their own heated rhetoric, noting they’ve likened immigration detention facilities to “concentration camps” and have accused politicians of supporting Israel solely because of campaign contributions.
“The most vile accusations and insults against our nation have become incredibly routine,” he said.
But he said twice that Trump isn’t a racist: “It’s coming from all different points of ideological view. To single out any segment of this, is I think, a mistake,” McConnell said.
The House voted late Tuesday on a resolution “condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress.” It was meant to be a direct response to Trump’s blasts at the four congresswomen, which included accusations that they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere.”
The resolution was also designed to attract some Republican support, though only four Republicans and one independent joined Democrats to support the measure. Only a handful of House GOP members have criticized Trump for lashing out at Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib D-Michigan.
Those voting against the measure included all five Kentucky Republicans: Reps. Andy Barr, James Comer, Brett Guthrie, Thomas Massie and Hal Rogers. The state’s sole Democratic congressman, Rep. John Yarmuth, voted for the measure.
Some Democrats thought the resolution did not go far enough. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties subcommittee, is pushing a four-page resolution that first describes Trump’s recent comments.
It then calls on the House to censure and condemn Trump for this week’s tweets, which it says are “xenophobic, promote white supremacist and nativist ideologies, and violate the president’s oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution, which includes respect for the democratic process and the Congress.”
It also calls on Trump to “apologize for his repugnant comments described in this resolution which have disgraced the Office of the President and dishonored the United States of America.”
But House Democratic leaders were not about to go that far.
“We want the strongest vote possible,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California explained further. “This is a resolution based in who we are as a people, as well as a recognition of the unacceptability of what his goals were. Other people will have other manifestations of their concern,” she said. “This is, I hope, one where we will get Republican support.”