Dec 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP digs out defensive playbook amid Trump "poisoning" backlash

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Republican reactions to former President Trump's claim that undocumented immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country" are shedding light on the GOP's defensive playbook for 2024, honed over years of cyclical outrage.

Why it matters: With Trump's team convinced he could lock up the GOP nomination by early March, Republicans could spend one of the longest general election campaigns in modern history being forced to answer for his extreme rhetoric at every turn.

  • President Biden's campaign, which has compared Trump's dehumanizing comments to Adolf Hitler's rhetoric at least four times in the past six weeks, is committed to turning the screws on Trump's supporters.
  • "Every time he says it, we are going to call it out," Biden campaign communications director Michael Tyler told Politico. "He's going to echo the rhetoric of Hitler and Mussolini, and we're going to make sure that people understand just how serious that is every single time."

Zoom in: Republican responses to Trump's incendiary rhetoric generally fall into a range of three buckets, usually dictated by level of loyalty to the MAGA brand:

1. Feigned ignorance: By far the most common response during the Trump presidency, lawmakers routinely dodged reporters in the halls of Congress by claiming they "hadn't seen" the latest Oval Office diatribe.

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump's chief rivals for the nomination, told Fox News: "I don't know what this means with the blood stuff. I know people are trying to draw historical allusions. I don't know if that's what he meant."
  • House GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally whose viral takedown of university presidents over anti-semitism has boosted her national profile, has been silent on the controversy.
  • Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) sought to deflect criticism by falsely claiming on CNN that Trump was actually referring to Democratic border policies "poisoning the blood of our country" — not immigrants.

2. Tepid disagreement: Republican senators from the Trump-skeptical wing of the party often take this route, saying they personally disagree with his language while stopping short of condemning the former president.

  • Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called the "poisoning" comments "unhelpful," for example, while Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told reporters that he "certainly wouldn't have" used Trump's words.
  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a Trump critic who has nonetheless vowed to support the GOP nominee, drily remarked today: "Well, it strikes me that didn't bother him when he appointed [McConnell's wife] Elaine Chao secretary of transportation."

3. Open endorsement: MAGA diehards are most likely to fully align themselves with Trump's rhetoric, no matter the backlash.

  • "I'm mad he wasn't tougher than that, because have you seen what's happening at the border?" Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) told reporters.
  • Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) called Trump's comments "objectively and obviously true to anybody who looks at the statistics about fentanyl statistics" — and slammed comparisons to Hitler as "preposterous."

The bottom line: "Looks like I'm looking forward to another year of answering these questions," Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) sarcastically remarked to Politico.

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