Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that he stands behind House Minority Whip Steve Scalise despite the Louisiana Republican’s admission that he spoke at a white supremacist conference in 2002 organized by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“More than a decade ago, Representative Scalise made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong and inappropriate,” Boehner said. “Like many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, I know Steve to be a man of high integrity and good character. He has my full confidence as our Whip, and he will continue to do great and important work for all Americans.”Boehner’s statement was released moments after Scalise formally acknowedged attending the conference, calling it “a mistake I regret.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also released a statement of support for Scaliese, saying he had “acknowledged he made a mistake and has condemned the views that organization espouses.”
“I’ve known him as a friend for many years and I know that he does not share the beliefs of that organization,” McCarthy added.
The response from the GOP’s top House leadership comes amid a swirl of new questions about Scalise’s involvement with the group. Duke and one of his associates, Kenny Knight, have given extensive interviews describing their relationship with the lawmaker back when he was a state legislator. Knight told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he and Scalise were neighbors and friends and had discussed politics, which led him to invite the congressman to address the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) conference. However, Knight said he was unsure whether Scalise understood its broader political agenda.
Scalise admitted Tuesday for the first time that he had attended the EURO conference. He hedged when asked Monday following a report by blogger Lamar White, Jr. that he had spoken there, saying he could have done so but at that point in his career, he would address any group that invited him.
“Twelve years ago, I spoke to many different Louisiana groups as a state representative, trying to build support for legislation that focused on cutting wasteful state spending, eliminating government corruption, and stopping tax hikes,” Scalise said in a statement on Tuesday. “One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn. It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold. I am very disappointed that anyone would try to infer otherwise for political gain. As a Catholic, these groups hold views that are vehemently opposed to my own personal faith, and I reject that kind of hateful bigotry. Those who know me best know I have always been passionate about helping, serving, and fighting for every family that I represent. And I will continue to do so.”
Democrats on Tuesday challenged Scalise’s claim that he didn’t know the event was a forum for anti-Semitic and racist activists.
“Seriously? He didn’t know?” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said in a statement. “The group was named the ‘European-American Unity and Rights Organization,’ it was founded by David Duke, and he was invited by two of Duke’s longtime associates. It doesn’t get much more clear than that.”
Elleithee added that Scalise’s “weak attempt at an explanation doesn’t pass the smell test and raises far more questions than it answers.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee pressed House GOP leaders to take action against Scalise.
“Steve Scalise chose to cheerlead for a group of KKK members and neo-Nazis at a white supremacist rally and now his fellow House Republican Leaders can’t even speak up and say he was wrong,” DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin told reporters in a statement. “Republicans in Congress might talk about improving their terrible standing with non-white voters, but it’s clear their leadership has a history of embracing anti-Semitic, racist hate groups.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups like EURO, also called on Scalise to step down as House whip.
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The Scalise story is an unexpected holiday mess for Boehner as he prepares to head a new Congress in January with an expanded Republican majority and, for the first time under his leadership, a GOP-controlled Senate. If not for Scalise, one of the top congressional stories heading into next week might be the swearing-in of Will Hurd and Mia Love, two black Republicans elected to the House this year, as well as the continued rise of South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who in November became the first popularly elected African-American in the South since Reconstruction. Now it’s about House Republicans deciding how close is too close to white supremacists when it comes to holding a leadership position.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, tied the Scalise revelation into a broader critique of the House GOP’s policy record on civil rights and immigration.
“[A]ctions speak louder than whatever Steve Scalise said to that group in 2002,” he wrote. ”Just this year, House Republicans have refused to restore the Voting Rights Act or pass comprehensive immigration reform, and leading Republican members are now actively supporting in the federal courts efforts by another known extremist group, the American Center for Law and Justice, which is seeking to overturn the President’s immigration executive actions.”
Few Republicans outside of Louisiana have been eager to come to Scalise’s defense, especially while they wait to find out if more extremist ties pop up now that the previously obscure lawmaker is facing a media feeding frenzy for the first time. But if Boehner had stayed on the sidelines or condemned Scalise he could have alienated conservative members who backed Scalise’s ascension to leadership earlier this year after then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s upset primary loss.
It’s still an open question just how much support Scalise can expect from the right, however. While Iowa Rep. Steve King and New York Rep. Peter King have backed Scalise along with Louisiana politicians from both parties, prominent conservative commentator Erick Erickson excoriated Scalise’s explanation on Monday using much the same language as his Democratic critics.
“How the hell does somebody show up at a David Duke organized event in 2002 and claim ignorance?” Erickson wrote.
Scalise’s response so far hasn’t done him any favors, either. The standard rules of surviving a political crisis are to get one’s story straight, issue an apology, and cut off any possible avenues for damaging follow up news. Scalise took a day to say for sure whether he even attended the conference, he hasn’t issued any kind of apology beyond general “regret,” and he’s rested his defense on the shaky claim that a politician in Louisiana could have not noticed that the event was tied to Duke, whose ongoing role in that state’s politics had been an international embarrassment for over a decade by the time Scalise attended the EURO gathering.
The event was also the subject of local coverage at the time. Duke has eagerly advanced the story, telling The Washington Post on Monday his aide invited Scalise based on his friendly relationship with the lawmaker.
“Scalise would communicate a lot with my campaign manager, Kenny Knight,” Duke told the Post. “That is why he was invited and why he would come. Kenny knew Scalise, Scalise knew Kenny. They were friendly.”
Knight told the Post’s Robert Costa in a follow up interview that he and Scalise got know each other as neighbors and that the congressman attended the event, but he added that he didn’t think Scalise knew about EURO’s involvement and left the venue before Duke delivered a speech alleging Israeli involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
“Steve was someone who I exchanged ideas with on politics,” he said. “We wouldn’t talk about race or the Jewish question.”
A spokeswoman for Scalise did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Duke’s and Knight’s claims.