Nearly eight decades after the end of the Holocaust and four years after an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh took the lives of 11 people as they prayed, it shouldn’t be hard to reject a political leader who openly associates with antisemites.
For Republican leaders, however, the Trump era has played out as one long series of compromised principles. The last week has highlighted the toll that continues to take.
With Congress back to work this week, some Republican leaders have been publicly commenting on former President Trump‘s decision to sit down for dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, an internet provocateur who specializes in racism, misogyny and antisemitism.
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Some have been straightforward. Especially in the Senate, Republicans have shown an increased willingness to criticize Trump. That’s a sign of how the losses by Trump-endorsed candidates in the midterm elections have reduced his standing in the party.
Reduced, however, does not mean eliminated. To gauge Trump’s remaining sway, just observe the silence from several of Trump’s potential rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination or watch the tap dancing of House leaders, especially Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, as they try to distance themselves from the dinner guests without criticizing the host.
A test of principle
A brief refresher on the event in question, for those who need one:
On Nov. 22, Ye, who recently lost much of his endorsement business after promising on Twitter to “go death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE,” arrived at Mar-a-Lago in a car with Karen Giorno, who worked as Trump’s campaign in 2016 as his state director for Florida. With them was Fuentes, a 24-year-old who has amassed an internet following with denials of the Holocaust and statements like “the Founders never intended for America to be a refugee camp for nonwhite people” or “I don’t see Jews as Europeans, and I don’t see them as part of Western civilization, particularly because they are not Christians.”
The group was apparently waved through security, then sat down for dinner on the Mar-a-Lago patio with the former president.
When other Mar-a-Lago guests began to spread word of the meeting, people close to Trump initially denied that Fuentes was present for the dinner. After that pretense collapsed, Trump acknowledged that he had met Fuentes, but insisted in several statements on his social media site, Truth Social, that he hadn’t known who he was. Notably, now that he does know, he has not said anything critical about Fuentes or Ye.
On Saturday, for example, Trump wrote that at the dinner, he and Ye “got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’ Why wouldn’t I agree to meet? Also, I didn’t know Nick Fuentes.”
Trump has stuck to his refusal to criticize the two even as both Ye and Fuentes have continued their provocations. On Thursday, for example, Ye conducted an interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, in which he made antisemitic jokes and said, “I see good things about Hitler.”
For some Trump supporters, the dinner marked a tipping point. That was particularly true among the relatively small band of Jewish figures who have backed Trump.
David Friedman, Trump’s former lawyer who served as his ambassador to Israel, wrote in a Twitter message addressed to “my friend Donald Trump” that “even a social visit from an antisemite like Kanye West and human scum like Nick Fuentes is unacceptable. I urge you to throw those bums out, disavow them and relegate them to the dustbin of history where they belong.”
Republican leaders who had already broken with Trump also leaped into the fray.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, has been the target of repeated attacks from Trump, including a racist jibe in October against McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, who served in his administration as Transportation secretary.
On Tuesday, McConnell slapped back at the former president.
“There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy. And anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view in my judgment are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States,” McConnell told reporters at a Senate news conference.
McConnell has little to lose: The midterm elections are over, except for the Georgia Senate runoff, and regardless of how that election goes, Senate Republicans will remain the minority. That’s largely Trump’s responsibility given the losses piled up by candidates he endorsed in key races. On top of that, McConnell isn’t up for reelection until 2026, when he’ll be 84.
Other Senate Republicans with a similar lack of concern about a primary challenge readily denounced Trump.
“There’s no bottom to the degree to which President Trump will degrade himself and the nation,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
Those with more at risk, however, showed far more reticence.
McCarthy, for example, hasn’t yet lined up the 218 votes in the House he needs to win election as speaker. He’s been urgently courting right-wing Republicans, at least five of whom have vowed to vote against him. That has led him to embrace figures on the party’s extreme edge, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and has kept him in thrall to the former president.
Speaking to reporters at the White House this week, after a meeting with President Biden, McCarthy was willing to denounce Fuentes, saying that “I don’t think anybody should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes. He has no place in this Republican Party. … I condemn his ideology.”
When asked about Trump, however, McCarthy first said that the former president had condemned Fuentes. When a reporter reminded him that Trump had done no such thing, McCarthy pivoted back to Trump’s defense that he didn’t know who Fuentes was.
Many of Trump’s potential rivals for the nomination have been similarly circumspect, with the notable exception of former Vice President Mike Pence, who told an interviewer for the conservative network NewsNation that “President Trump was wrong to give a white nationalist, an antisemite and a Holocaust denier a seat at the table, and I think he should apologize for it.”
Trump’s leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by contrast, has maintained strict silence on the subject despite repeated inquiries from news organizations. The governor did find time this week to dive into other subjects, threatening to punish Apple, for example, after Elon Musk suggested that the company might try to drop Twitter from its app store — an allegation that Musk soon abandoned.
Here’s the reality that ties the tongues of McCarthy, DeSantis and the like: Roughly 3 in 10 Republican voters still identify as “more a supporter of Donald Trump” than of the GOP.
That’s down significantly from 2020, when a majority of Republicans identified more as supporters of Trump than of the party, according to polling for NBC News, which has tracked that question. As recently as August, 4 in 10 Republicans said they were more supporters of Trump. But while loyalty to the former president has declined, 3 in 10 remains a formidable bloc, especially in an era in which elections routinely turn on margins of less than 2 percentage points in key states.
But side by side with that reality sits another one, which the recent midterm elections made clear: Republicans lost among independent voters, something that almost never happens to the party out of power in a midterm contest. And Republican candidates endorsed by Trump routinely got fewer votes than those he did not endorse.
The former president has become an electoral liability for his party, and the more they scuttle away from direct confrontations with him, the worse that liability becomes.
Six years ago, after Trump won the Republican nomination, party leaders, with a few exceptions, decided they would overlook his bigoted statements, flagrant falsehoods and personal misconduct in order to maintain unity in the ranks. They re-upped that deal after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, closing ranks to save Trump from conviction on impeachment charges and ostracizing outspoken critics like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
Now, as always happens with such bargains, the bill is coming due. This week has shown Republicans just how costly it may be to pay.
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The Georgia runoff
Voters in parts of Georgia have been waiting in lines that sometimes have stretched for two hours or more to cast early ballots in the state’s Senate runoff campaign, which will wrap up on Tuesday.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock beat his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, by just under 38,000 votes, but his 49.4% of the vote fell short of the 50% plus one vote required to avoid a runoff under Georgia law.
As of midday Thursday, more than 1.1 million people had voted early, about 15% of the state’s 7 million voters. With early voting ending on Friday, Democrats have been heartened by what they’ve seen: Roughly 54% of the voters have been Democrats, compared with 38% for Republicans, according to estimates by the Democratic voter targeting firm TargetSmart.
The comparable figures for the state’s 2021 runoff, in which Warnock was elected, showed the parties roughly equal.
In addition, turnout of Black voters, which lagged during the November general election, appears to have picked up. Black voters have made up about 36% of the early vote, compared with 30% of the vote in November. Exit polls showed that Warnock won the vast majority of Black voters in November.
A lot of uncertainty remains. Because the early voting period is much shorter this time than in 2021, a larger share of voters may end up casting ballots on election day, making projections difficult.
But the early vote adds to the indicators pointing toward Warnock as the favorite in the race.
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The latest from Washington
— A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a special master should not have been appointed to review materials the FBI seized from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. As Sarah Wire reported, the decision allows the Justice Department to resume using those materials as part of its investigation into whether Trump mishandled classified records and obstructed justice. U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon had ordered the government not to use the materials while the review took place, limiting for months what evidence the department could access during its investigation. “The law is clear,” wrote the three appeals court judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents. “We cannot write a rule that allows any subject of a search warrant to block government investigations after the execution of the warrant. Nor can we write a rule that allows only former presidents to do so.”
— The Supreme Court on Thursday refused an emergency appeal to immediately revive Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, but agreed to rule early next year on its legality. The justices left in place an appeals court ruling that has put the program on hold. As David Savage reported, the decision is a temporary setback for the administration but not a defeat for its plan to forgive student loans of up to $20,000 for as many as 20 million borrowers.
— Biden told congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday that he hoped he could work with Congress on funding the government, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting Ukraine. McCarthy looked on stoically and later told reporters that while he “can work with anybody,” he had told the president “it’s going to be different” once Republicans take control of the House next year. As Courtney Subramanian reported, the two men have done anything but find compromise over the last two years and have spoken only rarely since Biden took office.
— House Democrats tapped Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York to lead them in the next Congress. As Nolan McCaskill reported, he’ll become the first Black lawmaker to lead either party in the chamber. As House Democrats change over to a new generation of leaders, Jeffries will be joined in the top tier of Democratic leadership by Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts as minority whip and Rep. Pete Aguilar of Redlands as Democratic Caucus chair. Another Californian, Rep. Ted Lieu of Torrance, won a contested race for caucus vice chair.
— The chairman of the House panel investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol says the committee’s final report is nearly complete and should be released before Christmas. As Sarah Wire reported, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told reporters that the committee’s report will not be completed before Congress is scheduled to leave for the month on Dec. 16, but that there is a “good possibility” it will be out before Christmas. The report will be eight chapters long, and the panel could also release hundreds of depositions — namely those for which the committee didn’t promise privacy — along with other raw information, Thompson said.
— Immigration and Customs Enforcement accidentally posted to its website the names, birth dates, nationalities and detention locations of more than 6,000 asylum seekers who said they were fleeing torture and persecution, Hamed Aleaziz reported. The unprecedented data dump could expose the immigrants — all of whom are in ICE custody — to retaliation from the very individuals, gangs and governments they fled, attorneys for people who have sought protection in the U.S. said.
The latest from California
— Los Angeles Mayor-elect Karen Bass announced one of the central roles in her administration Tuesday, naming Christopher Thompson as her chief of staff. Thompson, who will also guide Bass’ transition, is the first major hire announced by the new administration. As Julia Wick reported, Thompson, a former chief of staff to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), currently leads government relations for the organizing committee for Los Angeles’ 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He started his career as an aide in Congress and also spent nearly seven years in various roles at Edison International and Southern California Edison.
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