WASHINGTON — After years of turning a blind eye to Representative Steve King’s inflammatory statements and racist behavior, Republicans decided this week they had had enough after Mr. King asked The New York Times when phrases like white supremacy and white nationalism became offensive.
But even as they piled on their condemnation, President Trump had used Twitter to mock Senator Elizabeth Warren for not announcing her presidential exploratory committee at Wounded Knee or Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.
Now Mr. King — a Republican from Iowa who once said that undocumented immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” — is persona non grata in his party, even as Mr. Trump continues to paint the same migrants as rapists, drug dealers and importers of mayhem.
“Look, it’s been my practice for the last couple of years not to make random observations about the president’s tweeting and other things,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, told reporters on Tuesday, shortly before the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution that cited Mr. King in condemning white supremacy. “Congressman King clearly uttered words that are unacceptable in America today.”
Mr. McConnell, who has suggested that Mr. King find another line of work, was not alone. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who stripped Mr. King of his committee assignments, suggested it was not his place to rebuke Mr. Trump because the president is not a member of the House Republican Conference. (In fact, the House has the authority to rebuke or censure the president.)
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, another member of the Republican leadership, said much the same: “I think this is about our language inside here. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be disciplining the president. He’s in a different branch than we are.”
Republicans are used to agonizing over how to handle the president’s offensive comments and racially tinged remarks. His comments after the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where he said there were “fine people on both sides,” sent party leaders scurrying for cover, even as they took care not to criticize Mr. Trump directly.
“We must be clear,” Paul D. Ryan, then the speaker of the House, wrote on Twitter at the time. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
And after the president’s tweet on Sunday night about Wounded Knee infuriated Native American leaders in his state, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, issued a mild rebuke of the president.
“I wish he wouldn’t tweet as much,” Mr. Thune told reporters, adding, “That’s obviously a very sensitive part of our state’s history. So yeah, I wish he’d stay away from it.”
But generally, elected Republicans have let the president slide.
“They know on some level that their defense of Trump is morally unsupportable, and so when they get a chance to speak out against Steve King, who doesn’t have any power over them and doesn’t pose a threat to them, a lot of them are falling over themselves to condemn him,” said Peter Wehner, who advised President George W. Bush on domestic policy. “But you can’t condemn Steve King and not condemn Donald Trump and pretend that you’re doing the right moral and ethical thing.”
In Mr. King, Republicans seem happy to have found an opportunity to condemn racism without attacking the president. After taking a beating in the 2018 midterm elections — which produced a freshman Republican class that is almost entirely white and male and boosted the share of white men in the House Republican Conference to 90 percent — Republicans are also well aware that the party needs to overhaul its image.
But Mr. Trump’s critics within the party say that no overhaul can be complete without denouncing the president.
Michael Gerson, who was the top speechwriter for Mr. Bush, published an opinion article in The Washington Post this week that carried the headline, “Republicans Need to Condemn Trump’s Brazen Bigotry.”
Mr. Wehner agreed: “It’s a massive inconsistency and a sign of cowardice and intimidation on the part of Republicans — and I think also a sign of a guilty conscience.”
After Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said Tuesday on television that Mr. King’s comment’s were “absolutely abhorrent” and “racist,” Mr. Wehner took to Twitter: “I wonder if Liz Cheney would say the same thing about Donald Trump?” he wrote.
But some Republicans say they cannot be the word police, and note that Democrats were in no rush to condemn Representative Rashida Tlaib, a freshman from Michigan, after she used a vulgarity to call for the impeachment of the president. Others insisted that the president’s comments have not been as offensive as those of Mr. King’s.
“It’s just very different — the context of what is said, the way of what is said, it’s very different,” said Representative Mark Meadow, Republican of North Carolina and a close ally of the president’s. “I’m not going to go back and go through all of his quotes, but it’s very different.”
For me, the most disturbing thing about the Trump presidency is the way each week, like a steady drip of acid, Donald Trump tries to erode the thing that truly makes us great as a country and the envy of so many around the world — the independence and nonpartisan character of our courts, our military, our F.B.I., our Border Patrol and our whole federal bureaucracy.
No modern president has been more willing to use U.S. service members or border police as props for his politics, to blithely declarewithout evidence that most of the 800,000 federal workers going unpaid during the government shutdown are Democrats, to refer to the Pentagon leadership as “my generals” and “my military,” and to denounce different federal judges who have ruled against him as a “so-called judge,” an “Obama judge” and a “Mexican” judge (even though he was born in Indiana).
Why is this so important? Because America’s core governing institutions were not built to be “conservative” or “liberal.” They were built to take our deepest values and our highest ideals and animate them, promote them and protect them — to bring them to life and to scale them. They are the continuity that binds one generation of Americans to the next and the beacon for how we work together to build an ever more perfect union.
At their best, these institutions have created the regulatory foundations and legal and security frameworks that have made America great — that have enabled innovation to be sparked, commerce to flourish and ideas to freely blossom. Rather than serving any party or person’s whims, these institutions have promoted and protected enduring American values, laws, norms and ideals.
The independent, nonpartisan quality of our institutions is one of the biggest reasons so many people want to immigrate to America and why some people are even ready to build rafts out of milk cartons to get here.
So when an American leader denigrates those institutions, tries to erode their independence or turns them into political props, he damages the very core of what makes our country unique.
And that’s why today I would like to give a shout-out to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for having the integrity and courage to call Trump out for this behavior, to draw a red line around the judicial branch and to signal to Trump — politely but firmly — to keep his hands off its independence and nonpartisan charter.
Roberts did so in November, after a federal district judge in San Francisco put Trump’s asylum policy on hold and the president denounced him as an “Obama judge.”
Responding to a query made by The Associated Press, Chief Justice Roberts said: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
Roberts added, on that day before Thanksgiving, that an “independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
That brushback pitch by Roberts — a high fastball right under Trump’s chin — was highly unusual, but an important example to others. Of course, our judges are appointed by politicians with the hope that they’ll reflect their own or their party’s ideological bent on issues that come before them — and they often do.
Roberts knows that. But what he also knows is that central to our system is that every American is able to expect an impartial hearing before those judges, who, once they assume their place on the bench, should be loyal only to the Constitution and their interpretations of it.
It was Roberts, appointed by George W. Bush, who cast the deciding vote to save Obamacare in June 2015. Other times he’s disappointed liberals and will surely do so again. Judges judge.
Is this curtains for Steve King, or what?