GOP leaders condemn lawmakers’ appearance at white nationalist conference
By Jonathan Weisman and Annie Karni
Republican congressional leaders earlier this week broke their silence about the participation of two House Republicans at a far-right conference with ties to white supremacy, denouncing the actions of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
Three days after Greene appeared in person and Gosar by video at the America First Political Action Conference, organized by a prominent white supremacist, Nick Fuentes, the responses reflected mounting pressure on top Republicans to denounce extremists in their ranks.
They followed a sharp condemnation by the Republican Jewish Coalition and a more oblique one by the Republican National Committee, and marked a rare public rebuke by GOP congressional leaders, who have more often stayed mum in response to outrageous language and conduct by their hard-right members.
By Monday afternoon, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., minority leader and who aspires to be speaker, told reporters at the Capitol that he found the pair’s behavior “appalling and wrong.”
After taking Republicans to Israel and the hallowed museum of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, McCarthy said, he had returned to Washington to find that two colleagues “went and participated with a group that has a leader that many times gives antisemitic views, and led a chant for Putin.”
“The party should not be associated any time, any place with somebody who is antisemitic,” he added, calling Greene’s failure to leave the stage after Fuentes praised Adolf Hitler “unacceptable.”
His comments came not long after Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the top GOP member of the Senate, released a statement saying, “There’s no place in the Republican Party for white supremacists or antisemitism.”
Greene has rejected criticism of her participation, at first saying that she did not know who Fuentes was. But Sunday, she issued a rambling, defiant broadside that edged into antisemitism when she decried her attackers as “the Pharisees in the Republican Party,” referring to an ancient group of Jewish leaders whom Jesus called hypocrites.
“We’re not going to be deterred by journalists and Washington insiders who fear the name of our Lord, and relentlessly attack those of us who proclaim his name,” Greene said. “We know that Christ is our only judge.”
The episode was yet another indication of the extremism problem Republicans face within their ranks, during what should be heady days for the party. President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings have buoyed its fortunes and put control of Congress within its grasp after the midterm elections in November. But the words and actions of prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, the GOP’s nominal leader, have kept lawmakers and leaders on the defensive.
Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent days as “savvy,” “a genius” and “smart,” resurrecting questions over the former president’s efforts to withhold military aid from Ukraine to force its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to dig up dirt on Trump’s Democratic rival, Biden.
“This was Zelenskyy, now a world hero, asking for weapons, and it was an American president slow-walking the provision of those weapons in order to have Zelenskyy carry out a political investigation on his foe,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the only GOP member to vote for Trump’s conviction after his first impeachment, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It was wrong. It was in violation of a president’s responsibility to defend our nation and defend the cause of freedom.”
Pressed on ABC’s “This Week” to repudiate Trump’s praise for Putin, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., snapped, “If you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about Vladimir Putin or any other topic, I’d encourage you to invite him on your show.”
But neither Greene nor Gosar is a party leader. The House stripped Greene of her committee assignments for threats to Democratic members, and formally censured Gosar for posting a cartoon depicting him slashing the neck of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., before violently confronting Biden.
McCarthy meted out no punishment in either case. The only House Republicans who have faced penalties for their words or deeds have been Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who were censured by the party in February for participating in the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which the RNC called “persecution of ordinary people engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
McCarthy defended the censure, while McConnell repudiated it.
In the case of Greene and Gosar, the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is generously funded by powerful party donors, swiftly denounced their appearances last week at the America First conference, where the lawmakers shared a stage with Fuentes, an antisemitic Holocaust denier who questioned why comparing Putin to Hitler was “a bad thing.”
The crowd at the conference — which was running at the fringes of the larger Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC — could be heard on videos chanting, “Putin, Putin.”
“It is appalling and outrageous that a member of Congress would share a platform with an individual who has actively spread antisemitic bile, mocked the Holocaust, and promoted dangerous anti-Israel conspiracy theories,” the Republican Jewish group stated, adding, “This has absolutely no place in the Republican Party, and RJC will actively oppose anyone who associates with Nick Fuentes, AFPAC and their ilk.”
It is not at all clear that Republicans would pay a price for the actions on their right.
“I have absolute confidence in Kevin McCarthy,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He’s rock solid when it comes to this. If he wants to deal with the issue publicly or privately, all I can tell you is, it will be dealt with. It’s not something he will ignore.”
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary and prominent Jewish Republican, called Greene’s appearance “as wrong as wrong gets” and “a moral line that should never be crossed.”
But he, too, expressed confidence in McCarthy.
“They went, it’s their behavior,” he said. “I have 100% confidence in Kevin and Republican leadership that, whether in public or in private, they’re handling it well.”