WASHINGTON – There was a reason why it took Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell an entire night to respond to President Trump's chaotic news conference equating counter protesters with the Nazis they came to resist.
He was livid.
Two sources close to the senator, speaking under condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said the pro-civil rights Republican who lived through the 1960s in Kentucky closely deliberated on the best way forward.
He spoke to a number of aides and confidantes, reflecting on his long career in public service that began working as an aide to former Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky senator who was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and – specifically – how hard it was being a pro-civil rights Republican at the time.
McConnell's anger – and the difficulty he felt responding to the leader of his party – highlights the quandary facing many Republicans in the aftermath of Trump’s comments blaming “both sides” for violence that ended in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.In the end, McConnell sent out a statement challenging Trump’s position that not everyone who came to the white nationalist rally had hateful beliefs – saying there “are no good neo-Nazis” – without mentioning the president by name.
It was McConnell's attempt to strike a middle ground. The potential cost of Trump's incendiary remarks is real. And perhaps few understand how far the nation and his party have come than McConnell, who was also present both for Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature of the Voting Rights Act and Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech."
The restraint highlights the GOP's Trump dilemma: Republicans are searching for ways to distance themselves from the president without personally taking on a president who remains popular in many GOP-dominated states. McConnell's Senate office declined to comment.
“Every member I’ve talked to has been apoplectic about it,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who’s worked at the Republican National Committee and in the George W. Bush administration.
“This is just the beginning,” added Heye. “The potential for it to be really bad is real."The rift within the GOP could also be seen in how the Republican National Committee responded to Trump’s controversial remarks.
Kayleigh McEnany, the RNC's new spokeswoman, praised Trump’s “message of love and inclusiveness” on Twitter after the Tuesday statement.
Yet RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel said on Good Morning America that “the blame lays squarely on the KKK and white supremacists.”
President @realDonaldTrump once again denounced hate today. The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!— Kayleigh McEnany (@kayleighmcenany) August 15, 2017
In the aftermath of Trump's remarks, many Republicans rushed out statements sending an unequivocal message condemning white supremacists and Nazis – with only some urging the president by name to do the same after days of apparent reversals. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. was one of them. "Mr. President, you can't allow white supremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain," he tweeted.
For his part, McConnell aimed his statement squarely at dissuading would-be white supremacists in his home state who are planning a rally in Lexington by saying they are “not welcome” in Kentucky.
According to those close to him, McConnell also didn’t rush out a statement because he was also hesitant to stoke a narrative about a personal war with the president after Trump has publicly excoriated McConnell for the failure of a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The situation was made all the more delicate given that his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was standing next to Trump on Tuesday at the event meant to be about infrastructure. McConnell was upset his wife was caught up in the controversy.
Another prominent Republican – House Speaker Paul Ryan – also criticized racism and white supremacists without naming Trump, who remains at 79% approval among Republicans according to Gallup’s latest weekly recent polling.
Lawmakers will be watching closely whether and how far that number dips in the first round of surveys since Trump’s news conference, said Heye, the Republican strategist.
Other GOP strategists also said it’s the beginning of a tough political chapter for their party.
“The faction of white nationalists in the party has now emerged and they’re going to go forward,” said Vin Weber, who has advised a number of Republican presidential candidates including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
Planning for a number of similar rallies is currently underway, including in Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and Boston, as white supremacists target a number of liberal areas more likely to spark violent clashes.
“You don’t un-ring the bell, but Republicans need to find some way of going on the record, stating very clearly that we are separating ourselves from this faction of our party regardless of its size,” said Weber. That could begin with a congressional resolution when they return from summer recess, he offered.
Heye said more Republicans may soon come forward to call out Trump – particularly if Trump’s numbers among Republicans drop into the 60’s. “There are a lot of statements that say white supremacy is terrible but they don’t say ‘hey Mr. President’” and reprimand the president by name, said Heye.
If GOP voters indicate that they share this disdain, more lawmakers will feel free to speak out, he said. “That goes back singularly to Trump’s approval rating with Republicans which goes back to just how unpopular Washington is,” he continued.
Indeed, a new Politico/Morning Consult poll found GOP voters side with Trump over McConnell when it comes out to who is looking out for the party’s interests. That’s despite another new survey, the Marist poll, finding that Trump’s approval rating has hit its lowest point, at 35%, and just 29% are proud of how Trump behaves.
Still, the White House shows no signs of further amending Trump’s remarks. Tuesday was his third time Trump was responding to the tragedy, after he drew fire for failing to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis by name in his initial response on Saturday.
“The president was entirely correct – both sides of the violence in Charlottesville acted inappropriately, and bear some responsibility,” according to talking points recently distributed by the White House. “Extremists on the left have engaged in terrible acts of violence."
Heye said he was so personally troubled by Trump’s response that he contacted the RNC and the White House Tuesday night and asked to be taken off their distribution lists.
“I don’t need any talking points on Trump,” Heye said.