WASHINGTON — A surge of Republican lawmakers denounced President Trump Thursday for his attacks on a prominent woman in the media, signaling a breaking point of sorts for a party weary of the president’s boorish behavior on social media.
Evidently offended by comments made by Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s program “Morning Joe,” Trump fired off a pair of tweets that questioned her intelligence, and suggested that she’d had plastic surgery. The president even got in a plug for his private for-profit club in Florida.
“I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore),” Trump wrote at 8:52 Thursday morning. “Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came . . . to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”
The message from Trump was more graphic and more personal than the hundreds of tweets he has sent since becoming president, and unleashed criticism even from voices who don’t typically clash with the president.
“Stop it!” reacted Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska, on her own Twitter feed. “The Presidential platform should be used for more than bringing people down.”
The overwhelmingly negative response to the president’s language was striking, even at a time when politicians and perhaps the rest of the nation long ago became accustomed to the unconventional ways that Trump communicates. And the reaction bodes poorly for a president who is already struggling to rally his own party around his agenda, which includes a health care overhaul has stalled in the Senate, a tax reform proposal that has made little to no progress, and an infrastructure bill that still seems merely aspirational.
Instead of coming together, the elected officials Trump needs for help were sprinting away from him Thursday.
“National and local leaders, including our president, should be a model of civility, honor and respect in our political rhetoric,” said Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, who noted that he had just chaired a hearing about safety in the aftermath of the armed attack this month on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball.
“The president’s tweets today don’t help our political or national discourse and do not provide a positive role model for our national dialogue,” Lankford said.
Leaders from both parties, and even Trump himself, had said in the aftermath of the shooting, which injured five, including House Republican whip Steven Scalise, that the nation’s political rhetoric should be toned down.
But the White House on Thursday rejected any notion that the president has a responsibility to set a better tone.
“The American people elected somebody who’s tough, who’s smart, and who’s a fighter,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a testy briefing with reporters that was dominated by questions about the tweets. “And that’s Donald Trump. And I don’t think that it’s a surprise to anybody that he fights fire with fire.”
She added: “He’s not going to sit back and be attacked by the liberal media, Hollywood elites. And when they hit him, he’s going to hit back.”
Also defending Trump, via a spokesperson, was his wife, Melania, who recently moved to Washington, D.C., and has said she’ll take on combating cyberbullying as her pet cause.
“As the first lady has stated publicly in the past, when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” said her communications director, Stephanie Grisham.
Trump has tweeted 866 times since taking office, interspersing messages about policy details with comments that either he or his office has had to spend days or weeks defending. The notes vary from commentary on news articles, to typo-ridden missives in the middle of the night, to veiled threats.
One message suggested the president had audio recordings of his meetings with then-FBI director James Comey. That tweet began a chain of events that led the president’s own Department of Justice to appoint a special counsel to investigate his campaign ties to Russia. And in another tweet the president seemed to confirm he was the subject of an FBI investigation, a notion that his personal criminal attorneys later tried to walk back.
Republicans and allies of Trump had often tried to ignore Trump’s penchant for tweeting, considering it an at times charming and at times lightly embarrassing consequence of electing a populist entertainer.
The president’s message Thursday referred to MSNBC cable hosts Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of the House, who have used their top-rated morning show to criticize the president. The two hosts — who recently announced they are engaged to marry — had indeed visited Mar A Lago during New Year’s Eve. On Thursday morning’s show, they criticized Trump’s use of Twitter.
“What I think Twitter has done is really revealed the true nature of this man who is the president of the United States,” Brzezinski said. “It has shown the kind of, the dark underbelly of this presidency. Thanks to Twitter, we know.”
Trump’s brutal tweet moments later left Republicans aghast. It gave them flashbacks to the most vulgar moments of Trump’s 2016 campaign, when the leaked “Access Hollywood” tape caught him speaking about aggressively hitting on women and grabbing them by the genitals, and when he said of then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that she had “blood coming out of her wherever.’’
“Please just stop,” Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican of Nebraska, said on Thursday. “This isn’t normal and it’s beneath the dignity of your office.”
Also fed up was Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican. “We don’t have to get along, but we must show respect and civility,” Collins said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has tangled with Trump, added: “Mr. President, your tweet was beneath the office and represents what is wrong with American politics, not the greatness of America.”
Norman Eisen, a fellow of governance studies at Brookings, a D.C.-based think tank and a top ethics official in the Obama administration, said Republican lawmakers are going to need to do more than just denounce their president if they truly want him to change his behavior.
“Trump is like an out-of-control child,” Eisen said. “And the Republican Party is like the parents that everyone shakes their head at. The way you change behavior is you have consequences.”
Republican lawmakers, he said, could start by boycotting photo-ops with the president to send him a message. Or, he added, an option would be to introduce legislation censoring the president.
The mere presence of a bill with Republican support rebuking him would send a tough message to the White House.
Eisen noted that there’s very little Democrats can do to force a change. “It’s his party’s responsibility,” Eisen said. “They have the power.”