Republican and Democratic leaders leveled their most forceful criticism yet against Donald Trump on Tuesday, widely denouncing the GOP presidential front-runner’s call to bar Muslims from entering the United States and signaling that Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric has agitated both parties more than ever.
At the White House, President Obama’s top spokesman said Trump’s proposal “disqualifies him” from the presidency, marking a rare administration foray into the 2016 race. On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the idea was at odds with the values of their party and the United States as a whole.
In the space of a day, Trump’s role as a domestic political provocateur expanded to international agitator as he sent a first-of-its kind signal abroad: The leading presidential contender in the opposition party wants to keep Muslims out of the United States.
Leaders across the globe condemned Trump as officials at home worried about the long-term implications of his actions. Trump called Monday for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States until we “figure out what is going on.” He reiterated his overall view on Tuesday.
It was far from clear whether the proposed ban on Muslims would have a negative effect on Trump’s popularity, which has only grown as he has escalated his rhetoric against illegal immigrants and a host of other groups. Some of his rivals treaded carefully around his remarks, and many of his most vocal critics stopped short of refusing to back him if he is the Republican nominee.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Trump’s proposal “disqualifies him from serving as president,” declaring that his rhetoric is “harmful to the country” and makes it harder to “work in partnership” with American Muslim leaders to identify potential threats.
Earnest said that other candidates and Republican leaders “should say right now that they will not support him for president.”
Ryan, who typically stays out of the GOP presidential contest, made a strongly worded exception.
“Freedom of religion is a fundamental constitutional principle. It’s a founding principle of this country,” Ryan told reporters. “This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for. And more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”
McConnell called proposals to bar visitors on the basis of their religion “completely inconsistent” with American values.
But neither Republican said he would reject Trump if he won the nomination, and GOP senators facing difficult reelections dodged questions about whether they would support the provocative businessman if he won the nomination. Almost all Republicans who were questioned tried to duck that possibility, saying only that they would support the eventual nominee.
“He knows that a lot of Americans agree, to a certain extent, with things that he says,” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show Tuesday. “He also knows he’s the only one reaching those people.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), wary of alienating Trump supporters as he tries to consolidate the conservative wing of the party, emphasized that he differed with that specific policy proposed by Trump.
“I disagree with that proposal. I like Donald Trump. A lot of our friends here have encouraged me to criticize and attack Donald Trump. I’m not interested in doing so,” Cruz told reporters.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a long-shot near the bottom of the field, told a New Hampshire radio station that it is “a mistake to base immigration or moratoriums based on religion,” but added, “I’ve called for something similar.” Paul was referring to a measure that would suspend the issuance of visas to refugees from about 30 countries “that have large jihadist movements,” pending strict background checks.
The Christian Broadcasting Network’s chief political correspondent, David Brody, wrote that Trump’s position is likely to resonate with Christian evangelicals, as long as he is able to verbalize “the underlying theological problems with Islam and the Quran.” Several prominent evangelical leaders in Iowa and elsewhere who are often quick to comment on the twists and turns of the election declined to comment on Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country.
After announcing his proposal — which he said was a response to recent terrorist attacks in Paris and California — he was greeted with adoration by his legion of fans on Twitter and at a raucous rally Monday night in South Carolina. On Tuesday, Trump conducted a contentious round of morning news-show interviews in which he defended the idea against critics who have deemed it unconstitutional, illegal, racist, dangerous and un-American.
Although Trump’s aides had initially said no one would be exempt from the “total” ban, the candidate began listing exceptions he would make. U.S. citizens who are Muslim and traveling abroad would be allowed to reenter, along with Muslim members of the U.S. military returning from tours overseas. Muslim leaders of foreign countries would also be allowed in, and exceptions would be made for athletes visiting the United States for competitions.
In the interviews, Trump performed as he usually does — deflecting questions, avoiding specifics and talking over the journalists trying to ask him questions. During an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that lasted more than 30 minutes, host Joe Scarborough told Trump to stop talking so that he could ask the candidate a question, then cut to a commercial.
Corey Saylor, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, predicted that Trump’s comments would make it easier for the Islamic State terrorist group to radicalize potential recruits.
“I think that Trump’s statement is a propaganda coup for ISIS,” he said. “No doubt in my mind about that.”
Some Democrats said Tuesday that the Republican Party is partly culpable in Trump’s rise.
“Republicans today are still saying they will support Trump if he is their nominee. Why? Because they are intimidated by his support and his supporters,” said Paul Begala, a strategist with the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action. “Trump may be the monster, but the GOP establishment is the Dr. Frankenstein who created him.”
Many Republicans worry that Trump’s proposals — which have drawn comparisons to those of Adolf Hitler and to the internment of Japanese Americans on U.S. soil during World War II — will do lasting damage to a party desperately trying to cast itself as more tolerant and open than in previous presidential elections.
Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania who became the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said Tuesday he would not vote for Trump. Ridge said that his anger over Trump’s popularity has been building for months and that he was frustrated that many fellow Republicans took so long to denounce the candidate’s rhetoric.
“I think the man is an embarrassment to my party,” said Ridge, who supports Trump’s rival Jeb Bush. “He’s an embarrassment to our country. We deserve better than this.”
Trump’s actions also hold implications down the ballot. Rep. David Jolly (Fla.), a centrist Republican running for U.S. Senate who backs Bush, took to the House floor Tuesday to call for Trump to end his campaign.
“I think its been a dark day for the country,” Jolly said in an interview. He encouraged other GOP leaders to “speak up.”
While Trump has gone furthest in his rhetoric and proposals, other candidates have given voice to views that Democrats have condemned as anti-Muslim. “Their language may be more veiled than Mr. Trump’s, but their ideas aren’t so different,” Democratic presidential front-runner Clinton wrote Tuesday on her website.
All of the GOP candidates have called for at least a pause in the acceptance of most Syrian refugees. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has said that a Muslim should not be president and has argued that accepting Syrian refugees into the United States is “a suspension of intellect.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), seen by many party leaders as the GOP’s best hope for cross-party appeal, has equated Muslims with Nazis and dismissed complaints of anti-Muslim bias.
“Where is there widespread evidence that we have a problem in America with discrimination against Muslims?” Rubio said on Fox News Sunday night after Obama’s address to the nation urging tolerance.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric Trump and some of his rivals have been using stands in stark contrast to the tone struck by then-President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In working to tamp down anti-Muslim sentiment that erupted after the attacks, Bush repeatedly talked about Islam as a peaceful religion and said the terrorists did not represent Muslims around the world. He quoted the Koran during remarks at the Islamic Center of Washington six days after 9/11. Three days after that, he spoke directly to Muslims during an address before a joint session of Congress.
“We respect your faith,” Bush said. “It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends.”
On Tuesday, Trump’s message sounded much different.
“I would want to engage the Muslim community, but the Muslim community has to help us,” he said on “Morning Joe.” “They’re not helping us.”
Juliet Eilperin, Greg Jaffe, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Karoun Demirjian, Kelsey Snell and David Weigel contributed to this report.