Public health experts reacted with alarm after President Donald Trump held an indoor rally with thousands of maskless supporters at a packed arena in Nevada amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
But many Republicans on Capitol Hill had a different view.
“No, it doesn’t,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, when asked if the rally troubled him at all.
After Trump urged his North Carolina supporters to go to the polls even after voting absentee, prompting concerns of people illegally voting twice and also crowding polling places amid the pandemic, Republicans shrugged it off.
“I’m fine with the fact that they check up on whether their vote counted,” said Sen. Richard Burr, the state’s senior Republican senator.
And after the President’s own admission to Bob Woodward that he played down the coronavirus to avoid a panic, even privately telling the veteran journalist that the virus is five times deadlier than the flu and then saying the opposite publicly, GOP senators in difficult reelection races had no qualms.
“No,” Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler said when asked if it’s a concern the President lied about the virus. “It’s fake news.”
“You guys are awful,” added Arizona Sen. Martha McSally when asked if Trump made a mistake when he misled the public.
Others declined to respond, making clear they did not want to address the controversy at all.
“Not right now,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a vulnerable Iowa Republican who refused to comment three times over the past week when asked about Trump’s comments to Woodward.
As Election Day draws near, Trump’s controversies have grown — and so has the Republican indifference to them. For much of Trump’s presidency, Republicans have rarely pushed back at Trump’s self-inflicted controversies and scandals, knowing that doing so would prompt a Twitter attack from the President and a revolt from his vocal supporters — something that GOP lawmakers, particularly in difficult reelection races, can ill-afford.
And with polls showing Trump commands the support of an overwhelming number of Republican voters, GOP lawmakers are in a bind as they try to court swing voters put off by Trump while avoiding criticizing a President who demands total loyalty from his party.
“They’re scared of the base,” said Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who left the Republican Party after sharply criticizing Trump and later voted for his impeachment. “And they think it’s going to affect their chances at elections this time or reelection this time.”
The White House this week wasn’t full of controversies, given the historic accords between two Gulf nations and Israel — a move that relieved Republicans and earned Trump bipartisan praise. But such moments have been overshadowed by more than three years of controversies and offensive tweets — and Republicans have grown weary of answering questions about them.
Many in difficult reelection races avoid answering questions from reporters, taking back staircases and entrances to avoid areas where the press congregates.
Sen. Cory Gardner, who faces a tough reelection bid in Colorado, was spotted on the phone four times between Tuesday and Wednesday as he entered and exited the Senate through a back staircase, declining to answer questions.
Asked if he could stop and take questions as he left the Capitol after the final vote Tuesday, Gardner said no: “I’m on the phone,” he responded as he headed to a car that pulled up the moment he walked out, a move that kept reporters from approaching him. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Still, others have aligned themselves with the President.
Asked if it were appropriate for Trump to tell a different tale to the public than what he told Woodward, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana told CNN: “I wish they’d be asking Joe Biden these questions. As he’s hiding out and not getting in front of reporters. The President is very open.”
Daines, who is facing his own tough reelection battle this year in his Republican-leaning state, went on to praise Trump’s response to the crisis, and said: “That kind of leadership saved a lot of American lives.”
And the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, dodged a question Tuesday about whether the President was truthful to the public.
“I’m sure you can get answers on that from the President himself,” McConnell said.
A handful of Republicans speak out
Some Republicans have raised concerns over Trump’s remarks after being asked by reporters.
“The American people can take hard facts. And he had an obligation as President to be straightforward with them and to tell all that he has known,” Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican in a tough race, said at a debate last week, after declining to answer questions in the Capitol last week about Trump’s remarks to Woodward.
Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican whose seat is targeted by Democrats, told CNN: “I wish he hadn’t” played it down. Asked about Trump tweeting “liberate” Michigan this spring even after admitting to Woodward how easily the virus can spread, Upton said: “It wasn’t helpful, let me put it that way. I’m being delicate.”
Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican, added: “I wouldn’t have taken the same approach that the President did.”
“I think early on it was important to say how bad this thing is,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican. “In my mind, if we could go back in time, I think he should be very clear with what it is.”
Avoiding Trump’s wrath
Yet the GOP criticism of Trump is rare — as is the focus on controversies that could put the President in a tough spot.
Amid concerns about slow mail delivery by the US Postal Service, and reports showing that US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy took steps at his old firm to reimburse employees for political donations, a potential violation of federal and state law, House Democrats were quick to announce probes.
But Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, who is probing Biden and his son Hunter Biden, said he has no plans to look into the postal service, attacking Democrats for advancing a “completely false narrative.”
Asked if he would investigate the reports about DeJoy’s potentially illegal contributions, Johnson said: “I’m sure you guys will have a better chance of investigating it quicker than I could.”
Reminded he had subpoena power, Johnson said: “Try to enforce it.”
Others said Trump’s controversies are blown out of proportion.
“It’s going to be something every day from now until the election about how he’s not doing this right, or he’s not following this right,” Hawley said, when talking about the President’s Nevada rally. “I think he’s doing a good job on this.”
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the president pro tempore of the Senate, said of the rally: “When they go in, they’re advised to wear a mask, and they’re handing masks out. What else can you do? You’ve heard the old saying: ‘You can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.'”