King tried to walk back the comments, both through a statement posted to Twitter and then in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, in which he essentially implored colleagues to pretend he didn’t say what he said, and to ignore the unmistakably racist comments he’s made in the past. “Today the New York Times is suggesting that I am an advocate for white nationalism and white supremacy,” King said. “I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I reject those labels and the evil ideology they define.” He went on to note that the people who know him know can vouch for him, as he’s “lived in the same place since 1978.”
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The fallout proceeded as expected, with a cavalcade of Republicans issuing statements condemning the comments, but not King’s presence in Congress. “I find it offensive to claim white supremacy,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told reporters. “I will condemn it.” Fellow Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst felt similarly. “I condemn Rep. Steve King’s comments on white supremacy; they are offensive and racist – and not representative of our state of Iowa,” she tweeted. “We are a great nation and this divisiveness is hurting everyone. We cannot continue down this path if we want to continue to be a great nation.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a person of color, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he tried to explain that “silence when things like this are said” are why Republicans are so often accused of racism. At no point did he suggest that King should not be a member of Congress. He even concluded by writing that he hopes King, a hardened racist who is 69 years old, takes the “opportunity to join us” in rebuilding the party’s image.
Republicans are hard-wired to furrow their brows and speak solemnly about the ills of racism, but they short circuit as soon as they’re asked — if they’re asked — what they’re going to do about it, and whether someone as transparently racist as King should be in Congress. (Rolling Stone reached out to Grassley, Ernst and King asking whether they believe King should continue to serve in Congress in light of his recent remarks, but received no response.)
His words will be condemned as if they’re some sort of unfortunate slip-up rather than a clear, intractable indication of the character of one of their colleagues.
The latest to perform this dance was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). “What Steve King said was stupid,” he said Sunday on Meet the Press. “It was stupid, it was hurtful, it was wrong and he needs to stop it.” When host Chuck Todd asked Cruz if he would continue to support King, Cruz avoided the question. “You know… What I’m going to do is urge everyone to stand for principles that matter,” he began for touting his own record of standing up to bigotry. (Cruz left out that he finds it acceptable for a bigot to serve in Congress.)
Cruz wasn’t the only Republican to tow the party line on Sunday. “This just popped up on Friday,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) said on ABC’s This Week. “We were very quick to reject those comments. There is no place for hate, for bigotry, or anybody who supports that ideology. It’s evil ideology. We all ought to stand up against it.” Scalise also accused Democrats of failing to condemn their colleagues who say “offensive things,” a breathtaking exercise in false equivalency.
On Face the Nation, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), managed to say that he will do something about it, although he did not specify what exactly that thing is. “That is not the America I know, and it is most definitely not the party of Lincoln,” he said of King’s comments. “I have a scheduled meeting with him on Monday, and I will tell you this: I’ve watched on the other side that they do not take action when their members say something like this. Action will be taken. I’m having a serious conversation with Congressman Steve King on his future and role in this Republican Party.”
The most powerful Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-KY), weighed in on Monday. “I have no tolerance for such positions and those who espouse these views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms,” he said in a statement provided to the Washington Post. “Rep. King’s statements are unwelcome and unworthy of his elected position. If he doesn’t understand why ‘white supremacy’ is offensive, he should find another line of work.”
These condemnations of King’s remarks are tantamount to offering “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of a school shooting, but refusing to support any measure of gun control. McCarthy may give King a stern talking-to about keeping his racism to himself on Monday, but it’s unlikely anything will happen that will prevent King from going on his merry way being a virulent racist while simultaneously serving in Congress. He’s practically already started. When President Trump posted a racist tweet Sunday night claiming that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’s 2020 campaign video on Instagram would have been better if she filmed it at “Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb,” King shared it to his Facebook page with a bunch of laughing emojis.
King is of course one of President Trump’s biggest supporters. Trump has long been a fan of the congressman, as well, raving in 2014 about one of King’s campaign events and invited him to the White House shortly after he was inaugurated. On Monday morning, Trump was asked about King’s comments.
“I haven’t been following it,” the president said before quickly fielding another question. “I really haven’t been following it.”
This post has been updated.