WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is embroiled in another controversy, and this time some Republicans on Capitol Hill are less willing to defend him.
After he dined with the notorious white supremacist Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has come under fire for antisemitic remarks, Trump faces growing denunciations from Republican senators, including some nominal allies who rarely — if ever — criticize him or his actions.
In interviews when the Senate returned from Thanksgiving recess Monday, the reactions from Senate Republicans ranged from aghast disbelief to calls to shake up Trump’s team of advisers to a sense of vindication among his staunchest critics within the party. There was little desire to ignore or brush off the incident, as most GOP lawmakers typically do when Trump stokes controversy, and scant indication that any of them wanted to defend a former president of their party.
“Ridiculous. That’s all I have to say about that,” said Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of Senate Republican leadership. “I have no idea what’s going on. But again, it is really ridiculous that he would do that.”
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also searched for the right word to describe the dinner meeting. Like Ernst, she, too, landed on “ridiculous.”
“I think he should certainly know who he’s dining with, and I find it, uh — I want to make sure I use the right word … I totally think it’s ridiculous to be sitting down with somebody who espouses such views,” Capito told reporters.
Asked whether she blames Trump or his staff, Capito replied: “We’re all responsible for our own actions.”
Trump claimed Friday that he “knew nothing about” Fuentes, a known figure in far-right circles, saying he showed up “unexpectedly” at the dinner with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.
The normally reticent conservative Sen. Deb Fisher, R-Neb., made a rare break with Trump, saying of Fuentes when she was asked about the dinner Monday: “I think it’s always wrong to elevate the rhetoric that gentleman — or that person — employs.”
Trump recently announced his plans to run for president again in 2024, and it remains unclear whether the criticism from GOP senators will persist, much less loosen his iron grip on the party base.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, offered a fiery rebuke of Trump and his decision to dine with Fuentes and Ye, calling it “a character issue.”
“There is no bottom to the degree to which he’s willing to degrade himself, and the country for that matter. Having dinner with those people was disgusting,” Romney said, noting that he “voted to remove [Trump] from office twice” and saying “anybody else” would be a better party leader.
“I don’t think he should be president of the United States. I don’t think he should be the nominee of our party in 2024,” he said. “And I certainly don’t want him hanging over our party like a gargoyle.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who voted to convict Trump in his 2021 impeachment trial, said: “I condemn white supremacy and antisemitism. The president should never have had a meal or even a meeting with Nick Fuentes.”
Those weren’t the questions GOP senators wanted to be answering in the Capitol on the first day back from their Thanksgiving holiday. But given the seriousness of the issue, some lawmakers recognized that “no comment” — a standard go-to response when Trump gets in trouble — wouldn’t suffice.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump golfing partner, said Trump made the wrong decision to dine with Fuentes and Ye, although he doubted it would damage Trump’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
“No, the meeting was bad. He shouldn’t have done it,” Graham said. “But again, you know, there’s a double standard about this kind of stuff. And I don’t think it’ll matter in terms of his political future, but I do believe we need to watch who we meet with. We shouldn’t give oxygen to people who think this way.
“And here’s another thought: If a guy’s name is Yeh, or Ye, you probably shouldn’t be with them,” Graham said, sounding unsure how to pronounce the rapper’s name.
Others issued broad denunciations of antisemitism without mentioning Trump or Fuentes.
“We cannot tolerate antisemitism, period,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., the incoming chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the outgoing NRSC chair, said, “There’s no room in the Republican Party for white supremacist antisemitism — so it’s wrong.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said: “Antisemitism is wrong, and white supremacy is wrong, and that’s all there is to it. That’s what I believe.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a top lieutenant to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he couldn’t be bothered with questions about Trump and Fuentes.
“I don’t know who that is. And I don’t see any reason for me to comment on what private individuals do or don’t do themselves,” Cornyn said. “I’ve got more important things to do.”
McConnell indicated he would address the issue at his weekly news conference Tuesday. In the House, which is set to return to session Tuesday, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is leaning rightward to try to win votes to become speaker next year, hadn’t commented.
Trump has blamed Ye for bringing Fuentes to the dinner. Writing on Truth Social, Trump called Ye a “seriously troubled man” and said he had no idea who Fuentes was.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he took Trump at his word and blamed Trump’s staff for not vetting Fuentes.
“If the reports are true and the president didn’t know who he was, whoever let him in the room should be fired,” Tillis said.
Several potential 2024 rivals blasted Trump for sitting down with Fuentes, including his own vice president, Mike Pence, who said Trump “demonstrated profoundly poor judgment.”
“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 and he should denounce those individuals and their hateful rhetoric without qualification,” Pence said Monday in an appearance on NewsNation.
“I don’t believe Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t believe he is a racist or a bigot. I would not have been his vice president if he was,” Pence added. “People often forget that the president’s daughter converted to Judaism, his son-in-law is a devout Jew, his grandchildren are Jewish.”