(JTA) — A week after former President Donald Trump dined with two men who are known for their outspoken antisemitism, Republican leaders are beginning to speak out — though some are sparing Trump direct criticism.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader in the Senate, said Trump’s Nov. 20 dinner with Kanye West, the rapper and designer who in recent weeks has come out as antisemitic, and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist who has denied the Holocaust and said he wants all Jews out of the United States, was a blow to Trump’s bid to be reelected in 2024.
“First, let me just say that there is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” McConnell said Tuesday when he met with a gaggle of reporters in the Senate. “And anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the likely next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, did not directly criticize Trump, echoing a number of other Republicans who have spoken out.
Referring to Fuentes, McCarthy said, “I condemn his ideology; it has no place in society at all.”
About Trump, he said, “The president can have meetings with who he wants; I don’t think anybody, though, should have a meeting with Nick Fuentes.” McCarthy said Trump condemned Fuentes “four times.” Trump has not done so, although he has said multiple times that he did not know who Fuentes was and that he was an unexpected guest of West, who now goes by Ye.
Trump responded to the mounting criticism late Tuesday, saying again that he hadn’t known Fuentes, an organizer of rallies on his behalf, before the meeting, and for the first time indicating disapproval of his views.
“I had never heard of the man — I had no idea what his views were, and they weren’t expressed at the table in our very quick dinner, or it wouldn’t have been accepted,” Trump told Fox News.
The varying responses — McConnell outspoken and McCarthy evasive — reflected where each leader stands in the party. McConnell, who has tangled with Trump since the former president spread lies about winning the 2020 election that led to a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, handily headed off a Trump-backed leadership challenge earlier this month, even as Republicans failed to recapture the Senate in midterm elections.
McCarthy, on the other hand, leads a caucus that wrested the House from Democrats but by a bare majority. If he wants to be elected speaker on Jan. 3, the first day of the new Congress, he needs the vote of a small but powerful faction of House Republicans who remain loyal to Trump.
Meanwhile, Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, has called on Trump to apologize — an action Trump has always been loath to take.
“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,” Pence said Monday on NewsNation, a cable network.
Pence, unfailingly loyal to Trump during the presidency, has broken with the former president since refusing to heed Trump’s pleas to illegally rig the electoral vote count on Jan. 6. The vice president, in a ceremonial role, supervises the count. A number of the rioters who breached the Capitol said they hoped to kill Pence.
A number of GOP senators, confronted by reporters in the halls of Congress as they returned from Thanksgiving break, also spoke out. “I think it’s ridiculous that he had that meeting,” said Joni Ernst of Iowa. “Just it’s ridiculous. And that’s, that’s all I’m gonna say about it. Just crazy.”
A handful of Republicans, including several who have for years criticized Trump, spoke out as soon as the meeting with Fuentes was confirmed last Friday. A few others who were close to Trump, including David Friedman, his ambassador to Israel, also spoke out to denounce the meeting.