In a season of extreme hyper-partisanship, it took the provocative and divisive behavior of GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump to bring President Obama and the two top congressional Republican leaders together this week in a rare display of unanimity.
Even as they defended Trump’s right to speak at rallies without being disrupted by Democratic protesters, Obama, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) all essentially delivered the same message to Trump who has refused to tone down his speeches or apologize for condoning violence: Knock it off.
As voters went to the polls in Florida, Ohio and three other states today in a “Super Tuesday” showdown, Obama said that he was dismayed by the "vulgar and divisive rhetoric” on the GOP campaign trail aimed at women and minorities and the violence that has erupted at Trump campaign rallies in North Carolina, Chicago and elsewhere. “We’ve seen misguided attempts [by protesters] to shut down that speech, however offensive it may be,” Obama said during a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon on Capitol Hill. “In response to those attempts, we’ve seen actual violence, and we’ve heard silence from too many of our leaders.”
“Too often, we’ve accepted this as somehow the new normal,” Obama added at the event that drew many lawmakers and diplomats. “And it’s worth asking ourselves what each of us may have done to contribute to this vicious atmosphere in our politics…. It is a cycle that is not an accurate reflection of America, and it has to stop.”
Both Ryan and McConnell have criticized Trump before, for the real estate mogul’s calls for mass deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, the barring of Muslims from entering the country, and -- for a brief time -- failing to denounce a white supremacist group that was touting his candidacy.
During a radio appearance on Monday in Wisconsin, Ryan described the video images of violent skirmishes between pro and anti-Trump forces over the past week as “very concerning.” He said that candidates must “take responsibility for the environment at their rallies,” according to CNN.
"All candidates have an obligation to do what they can do to try and provide an atmosphere of harmony, to reduce the violence, to not incite violence and to make sure that we are appealing to people on their best ideals, that we are going to unite the country around ideas," Ryan said.
Meanwhile, McConnell told reporters today that he had directly urged Trump to condemn violence at his rallies. McConnell said he delivered that message during a phone call that Trump instigated earlier this morning in what appeared to be an effort to pull the badly splintered GOP together behind his candidacy.
"I mentioned to him that I thought it would be a good idea for him no matter who starts these violent episodes to condemn it," McConnell said, according to The Hill.
Congressional leaders were in an uproar last weekend following media reports that a Trump supporter sucker-punched a black protester in North Carolina and that Trump was forced to cancel another rally in Chicago on Friday after his supporters and protesters loyal to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont threw punches and engaged in pushing contests that could have led to serious injuries.
Trump refused to condemn the violence or soften his rhetoric, and instead blamed Sanders, the democratic socialist presidential candidate, and his supporters for disrupting his events and forcing him to cancel’s Friday night’s event.
It would be an understatement to say that Obama doesn’t get along with Ryan and McConnell, and that the two top Republican leaders regularly condemn the president’s domestic and foreign policy agenda and performance. Both men have vowed to help shred many of Obama’s chief accomplishments, including the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal and Obama’s climate change initiatives to shut down utilities and industries that burn coal.
But the two congressional leaders are highly wary of Trump, who has criticized them in the past as the personification of political status quo and even warned that there would be consequences for Ryan if the Speaker chose not to go along with him if he is elected president. “I don’t know him well, but I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him, and if I don’t – he’s gonna have to pay a big price,” Trump said at a Palm Beach news conference.
Ryan later said he pretty much laughed off the threat. But clearly he and McConnell share Obama’s stated concerns about the dangerous path that Trump and his most rabid supporters are following.