WASHINGTON – Amid widespread protests and outrage over President Donald Trump’s response, one Republican senator said she is struggling over whether she can support the president in November.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in an extraordinary back-and-forth with reporters at the U.S. Capitol Thursday, backed the public condemnation of the president offered by his former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who said Trump was a threat to American democracy and aimed only to divide the country.
Murkowski called Mattis’ comments “true, and honest, and necessary and overdue,” adding that his words led her to believe that “perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”
Asked whether she could continue to support the president, Murkowski said “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time.”
She added that she didn’t support Trump in the 2016 election and was struggling with that same decision ahead of November, but said she would continue to work with him and represent her state.
“But,” she added, “I think right now we are all struggling to find ways to express the words that need to be expressed.”
In a set of tweets, the president appeared to respond to the Alaska Republican vowing to campaign against her and instead back any other candidate running, no matter the person. Murkowski is up for reelection in 2022.
“Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski,” Trump wrote Thursday evening. “Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!”
In the tweets, Trump noted Murkowski’s record on high-profile GOP-led proposals, including voting no during a skinny repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Murkowski, who was first elected in 2002, has proven to be a popular figure in Alaska. After losing a primary battle in 2010 against a Tea Party candidate, she was reelected to her seat in a write-in campaign where voters had to physically write “Murkowski” on ballots.
Murkowski, like other swing-state senators, has been critical of the president at times but her remarks Thursday marked change in tone from her typical weariness of weighing in on the day-to-day controversies related to the president.
She was one of a number of senators who were thought to be potential swing votes during the president’s impeachment trial earlier this year. But she ended up voting against hearing from additional witnesses in the trial and ultimately voted to acquit the president on both counts of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power.
Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voted to convict Trump on any of the charges, leading to Trump being acquitted.
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Mattis’ statement Thursday evening marked the first time the general spoke out about Trump since leaving the administration in 2018. His comments led to a number of military leaders also speaking out on Trump’s response to the protests over George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee for several minutes. Trump has threatened multiple times to send military troops to American cities to counter the protests, which in some cities have turned violent.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic magazine.
“We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort,” he continued. “We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”
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Republicans have been wrestling with Trump’s response for days, with some pleading for him to tone down his rhetoric and others taking issue with the clearing out of protesters near the White House before the president walked across the street to a church for a photo op.
Asked about Mattis’ comments, fellow Senate Republicans mostly shrugged off the remarks, saying while they respect Mattis and his point of view, they did not agree with his assessment that Trump aimed to divide Americans. Others said they had not read Mattis’ statement and declined to comment.
“I think it’s kind of obvious for some time that he and the president are at different wavelengths and that happens when you’re facing a challenge like we face today and different points of view,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan He added that while he respects Mattis, “I don’t share that view [that Trump is dividing Americans]. I think he’s doing the best he can under very difficult circumstances.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and a frequent critic of Trump, called Mattis’ letter “stunning and powerful.”
“General Mattis is a man of extraordinary sacrifice. He’s an American patriot. He’s an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him,” he said at the Capitol. “If I ever had to choose somebody to be in a foxhole with — it would be with a General Mattis. What a wonderful, wonderful man.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Mattis is a “decorated war hero” with an “amazing reputation and career, so I’m going to take what he says seriously.”
He said while the president has “said the right things” denouncing what happened in Minneapolis with Floyd’s death and the violence that erupted s in a number of American cities, “the question is tone and words.”
He added: “I think some of the tones and some of the words used [by Trump] should be focused more on healing and less on dividing.”
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