WASHINGTON — Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged Thursday that she’s “struggling” over whether she can support President Donald Trump given his handling of the virus and race crises shaking the United States.
Murkowski, long a critic of the president’s, told reporters in Washington that she was thankful for the example set the night before by retired Gen. James Mattis. Trump’s former secretary of defense, who resigned in 2018, broke his silence Wednesday with a blunt rebuke of the president’s leadership.
She called it “necessary and overdue.”
“Perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally, and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” Murkowski said. Asked whether she can still support Trump, she replied, “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.” But she said she’d continue to try to work with his administration.
Murkowski’s remarks were an acknowledgment of the ongoing choice Republicans are forced to make about whether, and for how long, to support Trump when his words and actions so often conflict with their values and goals. Trump has responded to the police killing of George Floyd by calling for more “law and order,” rather than addressing at any length the racial injustice that lies at the heart of the unrest.
The nation is on edge, and Election Day looms, with the presidency and control of the House and Senate at stake. Trump has made clear that consequences for what he considers disloyalty can be steep.
For Republicans, the challenge peaked this week when federal forces abruptly cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park near the White House so that Trump could stage a photo op in front of St. John’s, the “church of presidents,” holding up a Bible.
Saying little or nothing, a phenomenon that began before Trump was president, remained a popular choice for Republican members of Congress — even when asked one after the other whether it had been right for the administration to use the military to suppress peaceful protests.
“I’m late for lunch,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters Tuesday when asked whether Trump’s use of force against peaceful protesters was the right thing to do.
“Didn’t really see it,” said staunch Trump ally Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who is retiring, said, “I don’t have any comment on that.”
Even now, most Republicans aren’t breaking with Trump. Murkowski, who has her own complicated relationship with Trump, suggested that’s because those in the president’s mostly-white party are looking for the right words and tone. Statements by former President George W. Bush and now Mattis, she said, help point the way.
“I think right now…questions about who I’m going to vote for, who I’m not going to vote for, I think, are distracting to the moment,” said Murkowski, who said she’d continue to try to work with the Trump administration. “I know people might think that’s a dodge,” she added, “but I think there are important conversations that we need to have as an American people amongst ourselves about where we are right now.”
Murkowski retracted her endorsement of Trump during the 2016 election when he could be heard on the “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about assaulting women. She also voted to acquit him of House abuse and obstruction charges earlier this year after Trump’s impeachment trial.
Other Republicans this week needed no help finding the words.
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent Trump critic who is up for reelection. “But there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking reelection, said it was “painful to watch peaceful protesters to be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once.”
“President Trump’s walk to St. John’s was confrontational, at the wrong time of day, and it distracted from his important message in the Rose Garden about our national grief, racism, peaceful protests, and lawful assembly,” added Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who is not on the ballot this year. “The President’s important message was drowned out by an awkward photo op.”
The president noticed, and name-checked the trio.
“You got it wrong! If the protesters were so peaceful, why did they light the Church on fire the night before? People liked my walk to this historic place of worship!” he tweeted Wednesday, suggesting that “Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. James Lankford, Sen. Ben Sasse” read a specific article.
He took no such aim at Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican in the Senate.
“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 told Politico.