WASHINGTON — Republican senators struggled Tuesday to address President Donald Trump's harsh response to peaceful protesters who gathered outside the White House on Monday night, with many dodging questions about whether the tactics were too much or amounted to an abuse of power that infringed on people's First Amendment rights.
“I didn't really see it,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., when asked about the events of Monday night.
“I’m late for lunch,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“I don’t have a comment,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
There were exceptions. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., put out a written statement criticizing the president's visit Monday to historic St. John's Episcopal Church, saying he's "against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo up that treats the Word of God as a political prop."
And at an event hosted by Politico on Tuesday morning, Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone African American Republican in the Senate, said the president shouldn't have aggressively cleared the protesters.
"But obviously, if your question is should you use tear gas to clear a path so the president can go have a photo op, the answer is no," Scott said. But later in the day, when NBC News asked him about the president's response, Scott said he had "said too much."
And some senators offered full-throated defenses of the president, with Steve Daines, R-Mont., thanking the president for his leadership and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, denouncing protesters outside the White House as the people who were abusing power, not police.
But the scattered responses underscored just how difficult Trump's actions are for Republicans seeking re-election in November. The approach of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., illustrated the dilemma they're in: They can't be seen on television criticizing the president for fear he'll attack them, but they're also struggling to defend him.
McConnell declined an opportunity to address Trump's handling of the latest crisis, saying that he wouldn't comment on whether the president was exhibiting the leadership the country needs and that he's "not going to critique other people's performances."
He instead tried to focus on expressions of empathy for peaceful protesters and leaders in his hometown, Louisville, where the death of Breonna Taylor in her home in March has also sparked grief and anger, saying “much work still to be done in America, with regard to race relations.”
McConnell's comments came after a weekly closed-door lunch for Senate Republicans at which Pat Roberts of Kansas said George Floyd, the black man who died in Minneapolis police custody last week, and the protests weren't discussed. Instead, they spoke about pending nominations, the coronavirus pandemic and the Paycheck Protection Program.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, criticized the president, refusing to say whether she'd vote for him November "out of respect" for the deep political divisions roiling the country. She said she's not sure whether her Republican colleagues are focusing on the pain the country is feeling right now.
"I'm not quite sure if we are focused on the right things right now," Murkowski said, adding that the president isn't delivering the leadership the country needs. "I think tone is really, really important right now. And I do not believe that the tone coming from the president right now is helping. It's not helping me as a leader."
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, said on "PBS NewsHour" that he hopes the president shows an "appreciation for the frustration, the anger, the anxiety that people are feeling" and "just being willing to listen."
The president's photo op in front of St. John's Church, which was damaged in protests this week, was widely panned among Democrats and scorn by a few Republicans who subtly pointed out that a president who never goes to church and isn't known to read the Bible brandished a Bible after protesters were moved violently.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has an uphill battle for re-election in her swing state, said the president looked "unsympathetic" and "insensitive" in front of St. John's, saying it's a church she believes he has attended just one time.
"The president ought to be trying to calm a nation, pledge to right historic wrongs and be a steady influence. I don't think he was last night," Collins said, adding that it was "painful" to watch protesters being tear-gassed so the president could walk across the street.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said it was odd for the president to wield a Bible the way he did. "I don't think I've ever been to an event where I've stood outside a building and held up a Bible like that before, and I'm a person who reads the Bible every day," he said.
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Criticizing the president often comes with huge risks for Republicans, who can see their voter bases of support slip away with a single critical tweet by the president. After a tumultuous six to nine months in 2017 when the president and the Republican Congress were in conflict, most Republicans resigned themselves to the fact that they would have to keep quiet or tread softly if they disagreed with the president.
And the formula has mostly been successful. Republicans have confirmed a record number of conservative judges and passed the largest tax cut in a generation.
But that strategy is being tested with a nation in the grips of several crises.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a close ally of the president's, demurred when asked whether Trump was doing a good job, but he said he's "trying."
It was hard to find a Republican supportive of the president's threat to send in the armed military across the country. While Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has been advocating for the move for days, most Republicans said states should be left in charge to address the looting.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has announced that he will hold a hearing on police tactics in the Judiciary Committee, said: "Generally speaking, the military does not like getting in a position of having to police within the United States using force against fellow Americans. That should be the last resort, not the first resort."