After Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois became the first Republican member of Congress to cut ties with Donald Trump over comments that a federal judge wasn’t qualified to do his job because of his ethnicity, the obvious question isn’t why the vulnerable blue-state incumbent made his decision. It’s whether more Republicans will follow his lead.
Trump’s record of racist, bigoted, and misogynistic statements is long and puts the GOP’s control of the Senate—and Kirk’s seat—in peril. Trump’s policy prescriptions are vague but his sharp disagreements with orthodox Republicans on free trade, as well as entitlement and immigration reform, are well known. Recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham told The New York Times, “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary [Clinton].”
But that time hasn’t come yet, though the GOP members of Congress most loyal to Trump have become exasperated by him. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said Trump’s comments on the judge were the “textbook definition of racism,” has made it clear that he’s not jumping off the ship.
For Trump’s earliest supporters, meanwhile, it’s unlikely that their allegiances to him will ever break. Some represent Trump-base districts with constituencies that are overwhelmingly white and economically depressed. Some members themselves seem personally like Trump—plain-spoken, unwilling to back down from controversy, and ready to take on even those in their own party. They appreciate Trump’s outsider image, respect his business acumen, and, perhaps most importantly, can’t stand Clinton.
“Here’s the difference,” said Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York, the first member to endorse Trump, comparing him to Clinton. “Her flaws are character flaws. She may try, but she’s not going to be able to fix the fact that Americans think she’s dishonest, she’s not trustworthy, she has bad judgment. I call those character flaws. Those are baked in. Donald Trump has some personality—what you would call personality negatives, and some policy negatives. Those can be fixed.”
Collins, who helps orchestrate a weekly strategy meeting for the Trump campaign and Capitol Hill supporters, doesn’t agree with Trump on some controversial positions, such as the proposed temporary ban on Muslims. But he warns of Clinton controlling potentially multiple Supreme Court picks, providing for “four decades of a liberal activist Supreme Court where you might as well erase the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Amendments.” While he understands that others aren’t as fortunate to represent “a crazy Trump district” where he says both Republicans and Democrats were “devastated” by the North American Free Trade Agreement, his feelings against Clinton are so strong that he can’t understand the position of anti-Trump Republicans such as Kirk.
“He’s throwing his vote away, which is a vote for Hillary Clinton,” said Collins.
Of course, Collins and other big Trump supporters have become frustrated with their presumptive nominee too. Neither Collins nor GOP Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, another early endorser, thinks that Trump’s statement was racist, but they still want him to focus on other issues. “He has said he’s done talking about the lawsuit and the judges,” said Collins, hoping that the “annoying distraction” had been abated by Trump’s statement Tuesday that he’s done talking about his “misconstrued” position. “Thank you. Thank you, Donald. Let’s stop talking about the lawsuit and judges.
“Today is the day to pivot to the general,” Collins added.
In an interview Tuesday, when Marino was asked about the judge, the congressman replied with his own question: “Do you know the meaning of ‘racist’?”
“Look up the meaning of ‘racist,’ OK,” Marino added. “And according to three different types of dictionaries I looked in,” he continued before changing tacks. “Look, would I have said that? No.”
Later, Marino said that it wasn’t an issue, but that Trump should “stay more focused” on what voters are concerned about, including jobs, securing the borders, and lowering taxes for the middle class.
“He said what he said, and that’s Donald Trump,” said Marino. “I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong. That’s it. I want Donald Trump in the White House, whether he referred to someone as a Mexican or an Italian. The people in my state—and what I’m hearing across the country—they want somebody in there who has created jobs, not who’s under investigation.”
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