When Republicans find themselves on the defensive, they reflexively look for ways to turn their circumstances around and go on the offensive. In tactical terms, they’re generally pretty good at it, just so long as one is willing to overlook facts and propriety.
As the revelations surrounding Donald Trump’s Russia scandal have grown more serious, for example, the president and his allies have tried to flip the controversy, arguing that those looking for the real scandal should focus on the Justice Department. And the FBI. And Fusion GPS. And James Comey. And Christopher Steele. And Hilary Clinton’s email server protocols.
Anyone but Trump.
Last week, the president was at the center of an international incident following behind-the-scenes comments in which Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) confirmed the accounts, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told a colleague that the reports on the controversy were basically correct.
To defend Trump, Republicans again needed to find a villain. They appear to have settled on Durbin.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) appeared on Fox News the other day, for example, and suggested that, regardless of what Trump said, the Illinois Democrat is responsible for “undermining trust” by alerting the public to the president’s comments. House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) pushed a similar line.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went even further on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday.
“…I didn’t hear that word either. I certainly didn’t hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly. Senator Durbin has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings though, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by that. […]
“I didn’t hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was… And I know what Dick Durbin has said about the president’s repeated statements is incorrect.”
Note, on Friday, Cotton issued a joint statement with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), saying they did “not recall” Trump making the controversial remark. Yesterday, the Arkansas Republican’s memory apparently came into sharper focus.
Given what we know, however, the pushback is a tough sell. For one thing, Durbin has earned a reputation for being an honest senator and a man of great integrity. For another, his account appears to have been largely corroborated by Graham, a GOP ally of the president’s.
What’s more, on Thursday night, as the story was first being reported, White House officials themselves made no real effort to deny the accuracy of the accounts.
But as criticism of Trump intensified, some of his partisan allies apparently settled on a strategy: it’s time to stop talking about the president’s racist comments and time to start talking about the senator who helped alert us to the president’s racist comments.
If Republicans think they can make Dick Durbin the bad guy in this story, they’re likely to be disappointed.
Update: To help drive home the point, Trump himself targeted the Illinois senator this afternoon, describing him as “Dicky Durbin.” (The president is clearly getting a little lazy when it comes to his juvenile taunts.)