Republican candidates condemned Donald Trump for fanning the flames of of violence at his rallies on Friday, taking a more forceful tack after declining to criticize him over the issue in Thursday’s debate.
The story reached a terrifying pitch on Friday night, as protesters forced Trump to cancel a Chicago rally as scuffles broke out at the venue and in the streets outside.
“I think a campaign bears responsibility for creating an environment,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told reporters in Illinois Friday night, as networks beamed in live footage of the protests. “When a candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that it escalates, and today is unlikely to be the last such instance.”
Earlier in the day Friday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio strongly condemned Trump, saying there were “consequences “ to his words.
“I would point out there isn’t violence at my events, there isn’t violence at Ted's events, there isn’t violence at a Kasich event, there isn’t violence at a Sanders event, there isn't violence at a Clinton event,” he told reporters. “There's only one presidential candidate who has violence at their events.”
After the Chicago rally, however, Rubio sounded more torn between condemning Trump’s behavior and his horror at the rowdy protesters massing in the streets.
“I want to be clear: I am not telling you what happened there tonight is something I blame [Trump] for because I will tell you those people there are professional protesters in an array of different interest groups,” Rubio told Fox News. “I guarantee you some of these people are being paid to do this.”
He added that “there’s blame to go around” in creating today’s heated political environment around Trump, and singled out Obama.
“President Obama has spent the last eight years dividing Americans among haves and have-nots, along ethnic lines, racial lines, gender lines in order to win elections,” Rubio said. “I think this has gone to the next level here, and we're seeing the consequences of it."
Ohio Governor John Kasich, initially declined to criticize Trump over his rallies Friday evening, saying he had “never been to one.” But his campaign issued a statement later that night condemning Trump’s role in the chaotic Chicago rally while urging protesters to remain peaceful.
“Tonight the seeds of division that Donald Trump has been sowing this whole campaign finally bore fruit, and it was ugly,” Kasich said. “Some let their opposition to his views slip beyond protest into violence, but we can never let that happen. I urge people to resist that temptation and rise to a higher level.”
Friday’s standoff occurred after a Trump supporter was arrested earlier in the week for sucker punching a protester on camera, and Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandoski was accused of aggressively grabbing Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields when she approached Trump with a question. She has filed a criminal complaint and video of the incident appears to show Lewandoski moving toward her, but the Trump campaign denies the claim.
Trump said at a February rally in Las Vegas he’d like to “punch [a protester] in the face” and has frequently alluded to violence in response to the typically peaceful activists who often interrupt his rallies.
"If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them,” he said at a separate February rally in Iowa. “Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees."
Asked by MSNBC in an interview on Friday night about the Chicago event, Trump said he cancelled the rally because he “didn’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
"There is a lot of anger in the country and it’s very sad to see,” he said.
On CNN, however, Trump made clear he didn’t believe his rhetoric contributed to the danger.
"I don't have regrets," Trump said. "These were very, very bad protesters. These were bad dudes. They were rough, tough guys."