Former President Trump is facing sharp criticism from Republicans, including some who served in his administration, over his dinner with a prominent white nationalist.
The incident underscores the types of headaches some in the GOP are hoping to avoid as they push to move on from Trump in the 2024 presidential race, even as they worry he could win a Republican primary.
“President Trump was wrong to give a white nationalist, an antisemite and a Holocaust denier a seat at the table, and I think he should apologize,” former Vice President Mike Pence told NewsNation in an interview, while insisting that Trump himself is not antisemitic or racist.
Pence was the most notable GOP official to weigh in on Trump’s dinner late last week with the rapper Ye, formerly Kanye West, and prominent white nationalist Nick Fuentes.
But a number of other GOP senators also criticized the president over the remarks as they were peppered with questions by reporters upon returning to the Capitol.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), one of a handful of GOP senators who voted to convict Trump in an impeachment trial over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, tweeted Monday that Trump hosting Ye and Fuentes “encourages other racist antisemites.”
“These attitudes are immoral and should not be entertained. This is not the Republican Party,” Cassidy tweeted.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), another one of the seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump in 2021, told reporters on Monday Trump “should never have had a meal or even a meeting with Nick Fuentes.”
Several GOP senators who voted against Trump’s conviction, including Senate Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.) and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), who led the GOP’s Senate campaign arm and is seen as a Trump ally, were also critical.
Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, earlier had criticized Trump over the meeting, saying “even a social visit” from those espousing antisemitism was unacceptable.
Trump late last week hosted Ye at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. The rapper, who has been widely condemned and lost business deals in recent months for his own antisemitic rhetoric, brought with him Fuentes, an outspoken Holocaust denier who has in recent years hosted a white nationalist conference.
The former president has issued several statements in the aftermath of the meeting, none of which explicitly disavowed Ye’s or Fuentes’s past rhetoric.
“So I help a seriously troubled man, who just happens to be black, Ye (Kanye West), who has been decimated in his business and virtually everything else, and who has always been good to me, by allowing his request for a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, alone, so that I can give him very much needed ‘advice,’ ” Trump posted on Truth Social on Saturday. “He shows up with 3 people, two of which I didn’t know, the other a political person who I haven’t seen in years. I told him don’t run for office, a total waste of time, can’t win. Fake News went CRAZY!”
To some Republicans, Trump holding court with an avowed antisemite highlights the risks with nominating him for president for a third time.
“This is just awful, unacceptable conduct from anyone, but most particularly from a former President and current candidate,” Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who is mulling his own 2024 bid, tweeted in response to the Trump meeting.
The meeting also reflects how easy it has become for fringe figures to gain access to Trump since he left the White House. Former aides expressed concerns about who was in Trump’s ear in the waning weeks of his presidency, but without the infrastructure of the White House in place, Trump is more likely to grant an audience to extremists like Fuentes.
“Mr. Trump isn’t going to change, and the next two years will inevitably feature many more such damaging episodes. Republicans who continue to go along for the ride with Mr. Trump are teeing themselves up for disaster in 2024,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote in a piece published Sunday.
While criticism from the likes of Christie and the Journal’s editorial board is nothing new for Trump, others in the party, including GOP leaders and potential 2024 candidates for president, have remained largely silent over the controversy.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has not weighed in on the meeting. McCarthy previously condemned Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for attending a conference with Fuentes.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to offer comments on the controversy on Tuesday.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley are among those believed to be eyeing presidential bids who have not offered any comment on Trump’s meeting with West and Fuentes.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has in recent weeks inched toward criticizing Trump without naming his former boss, and did so again over the weekend when he decried antisemitism as a “cancer.”
“We stand with the Jewish people in the fight against the world’s oldest bigotry,” Pompeo tweeted.
Republicans spent four years trying to deflect, explain or dismiss Trump’s latest controversial comments or actions, and it is likely to once again become a central issue for the party.
Trump has already announced his candidacy for 2024, and he may soon be back on Twitter, giving him an even wider audience to espouse unfounded or incendiary claims.
“Ever since the election in 2020, I think the president’s descended deeper into the heart of darkness here,” Marc Short, a top aide to Pence and a former official in Trump’s White House, told CNN on Sunday. “I think it’s a big challenge [and] another reason Republicans are looking in a different direction in 2024.