Rep. King's inflammatory remarks roil GOP, which already struggles with race
President Donald Trump professed ignorance Monday about recent remarks from Rep. Steve King regarding white supremacy, while the storm around the Iowa Republican's inflammatory comments continued to grow and senior GOP officials prepared to take action against him.
Yet Trump had no qualms about engaging in racially offensive comments of his own over the weekend, invoking the Wounded Knee massacre - which killed hundreds of Sioux Indians on a South Dakota reservation in 1890 - to launch a political attack against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and her claims of American Indian heritage.
The fresh controversies underscored the GOP's ongoing struggles over the issue of race, even as condemnations from senior Republicans of King's remarks grew louder on Monday and lawmakers argued that his voice didn't represent the party.
"It is a challenge for us," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said of the GOP and race. Calling King's remarks "foolish" and "very insensitive," Rounds added: "I think these types of examples hurt us."
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., vice chairman of the House Republican conference, said he was offended by King's comments, "not even just by the words, but even the tone."
"Republicans as a whole have tried to respect the voters' wishes, specifically in Iowa in this case," Walker said. "Even though we've had some things we've gone on record and publicly disagreed with Mr. King on, I think it's reached a place that any time - it's kind of like a football team. . . . If it begins to impact the team in a negative way, then you have a team meeting and say we've got to work on this."
In a tweet Sunday night, Trump mocked Warren - a 2020 presidential candidate - over a recent Instagram Live appearance from her kitchen during which she awkwardly announced that she was going to grab a beer as she spoke directly to her followers.
"If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!" Trump tweeted, using a name he has repeatedly used to disparage Warren.
The tweet drew a rebuke from the GOP senators who represent South Dakota, as well as a harsh condemnation from the National Congress of American Indians, which denounced Trump's tweet in the "strongest possible terms."
"On behalf of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, I condemn President Trump's racist and disrespectful tweet about this brutal incident, in which an estimated 300 unarmed men, women, and children were rounded up and slaughtered," said Rodney Bordeaux, the tribe's chairman.
In an interview, Rounds said of Trump's tweet: "I do not think he gains any points by using the site of that atrocity in a political speech or a tweet. So I think maybe he should reconsider using that one in the future. That's not appropriate."
"I wish he wouldn't do that. I wish he wouldn't tweet as much, I've said many times in the past," added Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. "That's obviously a very sensitive part of our state's history. I wish he'd stay away from it."
Before he left for New Orleans for a farm conference, Trump dismissed questions about King, who started a firestorm when he asked in a New York Times interview published last week, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization - how did that language become offensive?"
"Who?" Trump responded. When a reporter clarified, Trump responded: "I haven't been following."
When asked about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., calling him a "racist," Trump dismissed the question, saying, "Who cares?"
The comments came as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., prepared to take action against King. McCarthy and King met privately on Monday afternoon, and neither King nor aides to the top House Republican commented afterward.
House GOP leaders voted Monday night to strip King of his committee assignments
But the condemnations from top party leaders grew Monday.
"I have no tolerance for such positions, and those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement to The Washington Post. "Rep. King's statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn't understand why 'white supremacy' is offensive, he should find another line of work."
When asked whether King should resign from his northwestern Iowa congressional seat, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, responded: "Absolutely."
King's comments to The Times follow a long string of remarks disparaging of immigrants and minorities, as well as a seeming embrace of far-right foreign politicians and parties that have been openly hostile to those groups.
Shortly before the November election, for instance, King lashed out at the media after The Post reported that he had met with members of a far-right Austrian party with historical Nazi ties after flying to Europe for a trip financed by a Holocaust memorial group.
This time, more Republicans than ever are speaking out against King, and last week a prominent state senator announced that he would seek to unseat King in the 2020 Republican primary.
There has been no word from party leaders on whether they will get involved against King in a primary. Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra has announced a candidacy, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, speculated Monday that more could get in the race.
Grassley said he "very seldom" gets involved in primaries, but he said King's remarks were "offensive" and added, "I would ridicule any statement about white supremacy, white nationalism, whatever you want to call it, and I detest it and deplore it."
Meanwhile, House Democrats prepared to vote this week on a resolution disapproving of King's remarks, a sanction that is short of a formal reprimand or censure. But leadership faced resistance from rank-and-file members who wanted harsher sanctions against King.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, said disapproval did not go far enough and called on the GOP to expel King from the conference and remove him from his committee assignments.
Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush of Illinois and Tim Ryan of Ohio said the House should take action and separately indicated that they would file resolutions to do so. Censure is a rare punishment for conduct bringing dishonor on the House, the most serious penalty that can be levied short of expulsion.
"His rabid racism continues to stain and embarrass this body and the years of deliberate silence from Republicans have only emboldened his ignorant and immoral behavior and empowered those who emulate him," Rush said of King in a written statement.
King is a figure of prominence in the House GOP, not only because of the controversies he has stoked, but also as a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, a leader in opposing legalized abortion and as chairman of the Conservative Opportunity Society, an internal caucus of right-wing House Republicans that meets regularly.
And because of his position in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, King's endorsement has also been a coveted one among Republicans vying for the presidential nomination. Several GOP candidates for the 2016 nomination showed up for King's cattle call, including Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
After the Times interview was published, King issued a statement trying to clean up the controversy and later spoke on the House floor to say that he had made a "freshman mistake" by taking a reporter's call and that the comments were "snippets" taken out of a larger conversation.
Democratic leaders, now managing a House majority, have so far been cautious in their comments on King. Censures of House members in the recent past have been done on a largely bipartisan basis after extensive investigations by the House Ethics Committee.
In a recent op-ed, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., suggested that Republicans are accused of racism because of their silence when King and others speak.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said that may have swayed the GOP.
"I think Senator Scott's public opinion with respect to the fact that Republicans should no longer remain silent when Steve King continues to express hatred for a wide swath of the American people probably had an impact on a whole lot of folks," Jeffries said.