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WASHINGTON — Top Democrats, including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, challenged Republican lawmakers on Tuesday to defend Donald Trump’s response to the terrorist attack on Orlando Sunday morning that claimed 49 lives.
Few took up the call.
Instead, GOP lawmakers in Washington jumped, ducked and crawled through yet another obstacle course laid by Trump as reporters peppered them with questions about the candidate’s proposed ban on Muslim travel, his suggestions that President Obama sympathizes with radical Islamists and should resign and his threat of “big consequences” for Muslim communities in America who he says are harboring terrorists.
"I'm not going to be commenting on the presidential candidates today,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after receiving a question about Trump’s accusations against the president.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who lambasted Trump’s Muslim ban when it was first proposed in December, said that he still disagreed with the candidate. Asked about Trump’s repeated suggestion that “there’s something going on” with Obama that prevents him from confronting terrorism, however, he drew the line.
“I am not going to spend my time commenting about the ups and downs and the in-betweens of comments,” he said.
That was a popular reaction among Republicans, some of whom looked like they would rather be anywhere else doing anything but taking a question on Trump.
Jostling to get onto an elevator, Senator Pat Toomey, R-Penn., told reporters inquiring about Trump’s Monday speech that he “didn't follow it closely.”
Senator Tim Scott, R-S.C., paused a moment after being asked by NBC News whether he had any thoughts on Trump’s response to Orlando.
“You know…hmm,” he said.
Then without another word, he walked onto the Senate floor.
Trump’s blistering speech on the Orlando shooting marked a turning point for the GOP. Since President George W. Bush’s first response to the 9/11 attacks, top leaders have tried to gently steer the party away from overt criticism of the loyalty of Muslim citizens and immigrants, let alone ideas including a complete restriction on Muslim entry into the country.
For some in the party, Trump’s demagogic speech and exultant boast that he predicted the attack were a depressing sign that he was unlikely to become a nominee they could feel comfortable supporting.
“I’m not hopeful right now,” Senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has refused to endorse Trump, told reporters. He added that Trump’s “ill-informed, ill-conceived ban on Muslims” was damaging the Republican Party.
Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who attracted speculation a few weeks ago that he might become Trump’s running mate after he praised the candidate’s growth on foreign policy, sounded far more pessimistic Tuesday.
“It wasn’t the kind of response that I would expect when 50 people have perished,” he said. “You know, I think I’ve offered words of public encouragement [to Trump] in important times and continue to be discouraged by the results.”
Others assured reporters that Congress would oppose Trump if he tried to implement a religious test for visitors to the United States by executive order.
“Whether it be a Republican president or a Democratic president, I think we will vigorously defend the fact that we're Article I [of the Constitution],” Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Trump’s top ally in the Senate, offered up a rare defense of Trump’s performance.
“It was a good speech. He told the truth about the threat we are facing,” Sessions said. He added that Trump “showed leadership and strength.”
A large chunk of Republicans in the middle, however, seemed content inhabiting an alternate reality, one in which Trump was merely a TV gadfly rather than the presumptive nominee of their party.
"We do not have a nominee until after the convention," Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told the Associated Press.
Senator Ted Cruz, who has not endorsed Trump, told reporters that America needs “a commander-in-chief who is clear-eyed and focused on keeping this country safe.”
He did not say whether Trump was that commander-in-chief.
Congressman Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., shrugged when reporters asked if he had any thoughts on Trump’s various pronouncements since the attack.
“No,” he said. "I just left a conference dealing with a [Defense] appropriations bill. That's where I'm focused.”
Asked whether he supported the candidate, McHenry directed the press to call his office.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told a reporter who asked for a response to Trump’s dark insinuations about Obama’s loyalty that they “need to take that up with the Trump campaign.”
Shortly afterward, Trump issued a statement to the Associated Press saying the president "continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people.”
Democrats sounded determined to force the other side to acknowledge their own nominee and make their opinions known about his most inflammatory proposals over the next four-plus months. In overlapping appearances on Tuesday, Obama and Clinton each condemned Trump’s recent comments and pressured Republicans to do the same.
“Will responsible Republican leaders stand up to their presumptive nominee, or will they stand up his accusation about our President?” Clinton said in a speech in Pittsburgh.
“Do Republican officials actually agree with this?” Obama said after a meeting with his National Security Council in D.C.
Trump, in a speech in Greensboro that night, responded that Obama was "more angry at me than he was at the shooter."
The Republican National Committee, headquartered a few blocks away from Congress, issued a detailed response of its own saying Democrats “have lost the national security debate” and accusing Obama and Clinton of abetting the rise of ISIS by withdrawing too quickly from Iraq.
Missing from it, however, were the words “Donald Trump” — or any indication that Clinton faced an opponent at all.
This release was on the RNC’s website, which as of Tuesday afternoon did not feature a single photo or mention of Trump on its homepage. Nor did Trump appear in the headlines of recent posts on the site’s blog.
The blog did contain a holiday message from GOP chairman Reince Priebus, however: “Best wishes to all those who are celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.”