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Paying for Dinner

How Republicans have been trying to spin Donald Trump’s meal with Ye and Fuentes.
December 2, 2022
Paying for Dinner
Donald Trump and Kanye West in 2016. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last week, Donald Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago with two vocal antisemites: Ye—the artist formerly known as Kanye West—and Nick Fuentes, an avid racist and anti-Jewish propagandist. In the days since, Trump has claimed that he didn’t know who Fuentes was. But he has defended his invitation to Ye, and despite entreaties to condemn the two men, Trump hasn’t done so.

Some Republican officials have rebuked the former president for this episode. But most haven’t, and many have found creative ways to excuse him, brush off the incident, or avoid criticizing him by name. Here are some of their evasive maneuvers.

1. Say nothing. After news of the dinner leaked, PBS reporters asked every Republican senator and every member of the House GOP leadership (presumably through their press contacts) whether “it was appropriate for Trump to meet with Fuentes and Ye.” The reporters also looked for any public statements by these lawmakers about the incident. As of Thursday night, two-thirds of the lawmakers questioned—including the incoming House Majority Leader, Steve Scalise, and the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, Elise Stefanik—had offered no replies and made no public comments. Internet searches still show no comments by Scalise or Stefanik.

2. Don’t mention Trump. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader and likely the next speaker, avoided comment until midday on Tuesday, when reporters confronted him outside the White House. When they asked why he had “yet to condemn the former president,” McCarthy responded: “I don’t think anybody should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes.” Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, used the same dodge. When reporters asked him whether Trump should condemn white supremacy and antisemitism, Scott replied, “I think Republicans should all condemn white supremacy and antisemitism.”

Why do McCarthy, Scott, and other so-called Republican leaders duck explicit invitations to address the former president’s behavior? Because they’re cowards.

3. Blame staff. According to the Washington Post, when Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina was asked about the dinner, he “declined to say whether Trump should apologize.” Instead, Tillis answered: “Whoever had responsibility for knowing the backgrounds of people in the room, I hope they’re already fired, because that was bad decision-making on their part.” John Thune, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, agreed: “I don’t know who’s advising him [Trump] on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”

This is how elected Republicans often dealt with Trump as president: They blamed some underling for his corrupt acts. Now that he’s a former president plotting to return to power, they’re offering him the same cover.

4. Swear that he’s no bigot. Trump is “not an antisemite. I can tell you that for a fact,” Sen. Marco Rubio assured reporters. Mike Pence, while faulting Trump’s “judgment,” mustered a similar defense: “I don’t believe Donald Trump is an antisemite. I don’t believe he’s a racist or a bigot. I would not have been his vice president if he was.” Pence noted that Trump’s “daughter converted to Judaism, his son-in-law is a devout Jew, his grandchildren are Jewish.”

This defense—that Trump’s family relationships refute any charge of bigotry—ignores the former president’s words and deeds. Trump has a long history of explicit racial, ethnic, and religious demagoguery. Despite having Muslim friends, he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Despite having Latino friends, he declared U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel unfit to preside over a Trump University fraud case because “he’s a Mexican.” When Republicans dismiss such threats and statements on the grounds that Trump gets along with some Latinos, Muslims, or Jews—and when Pence asserts that “I would not have been his vice president” if he were a bigot, as though that’s evidence—they reveal that their definition of bigotry is toothless.

5. Pretend that Trump said what he should have said. On Tuesday, McCarthy claimed that Trump “came out four times and condemned” Fuentes. That’s totally false: Trump, in four statements after the dinner, said no such thing. In fact, on Monday—several days after the dinner, and a day before McCarthy spoke to reporters—Trump’s spokeswoman had repeated on TV that “President Trump’s not going to shy away from meeting with Kanye West.”

(In a fifth statement, published hours after McCarthy spoke, Trump told Fox News that Fuentes’s views “weren’t expressed at the table in our very quick dinner, or it wouldn’t have been accepted.” It’s unclear exactly what Trump meant.)

6. Pretend that Democrats did the same thing. Sen. Lindsey Graham accused the media of a “double standard.” “When Democrats hang out with [Louis] Farrakhan, y’all don’t ask these questions,” he complained. Other Republicans circulated a 2005 photo of Farrakhan with then-Sen. Barack Obama. Rep. Jim Comer, the incoming chairman of the House oversight committee, also cited a “double standard,” grousing that reporters don’t demand condemnations of “things that Ilhan Omar has said.” Sen. Josh Hawley argued that Omar should be stripped of her committee assignments because she, too, is one of those people who “say they hate Jews, hate Israel.”

These comparisons are bogus. Omar is a fierce critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but she has never disparaged Jews. (You can watch this video to see how she thinks about the difference.) Farrakhan is a grotesque antisemite, but in 2008, Obama denounced him. “I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan,” Obama declared. Trump has issued no such statement against Ye or Fuentes.

7. Frame it as a political mistake. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy.” But McConnell didn’t mention Trump by name, and he declined to say whether he would support Trump for president. McConnell’s only allusion to the dinner was that “anyone meeting with people advocating” bigotry would be “highly unlikely to ever be elected president.”

That’s an empty promise, since Trump got elected president after proposing the Muslim ban and after attacking Curiel’s ancestry. In fact, Graham predicts that Trump’s dinner with the antisemites won’t “matter in terms of his political future.” But the larger problem with these answers is that they avoid facing the immorality of Trump’s conduct.

8. Dismiss it as a personal choice. On Tuesday, a reporter asked McCarthy whether Trump’s meeting with Ye was “appropriate.” McCarthy replied that nobody should meet with Fuentes but that “the president [can] have meetings with who he wants.” Hawley gave a similar answer: Despite his personal opposition to racism and antisemitism, the senator argued, “It’s a free country,” so Trump “can do whatever he wants.” When Sen. Tommy Tuberville was asked whether Trump should apologize or condemn Ye and Fuentes, he shrugged, “That’s up to him.”

9. Move on. When Comer was asked on Meet the Press about Trump’s dinner, he said the former president “needs better judgment in who he dines with.” But “my focus is going to be on investigating the current administration” along with “waste, fraud, and abuse,” said Comer. “That’s where the American people want us to be, and that’s where Republicans in the majority are going to be focused.”

Trump’s spokeswoman, Liz Harrington, agrees. “I’ve never seen so-called journalists work so hard over a holiday weekend trying to get comment,” she scoffed on Monday, dismissing complaints about the dinner. “Where is their tenacity,” she asked, over issues “of real importance? . . . There’s an election that’s so fraudulent in Maricopa County. . . . There’s money laundering in the Ukraine. . . . They never want to get to the bottom of real stories.”

And that’s how it goes. When Trump crosses a moral line, Republicans find ways to excuse him, deflect the criticism, and move on. Maybe they imagine that our moral boundaries will hold—that racism and antisemitism will remain unacceptable—even when a current, former, and potentially future president is shielded from accountability for ignoring those boundaries. But no true conservative would make that bet.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.