A tweet from a Republican congressman that praised a nationalist, anti-Muslim politician from the Netherlands was quickly rejected by some within his own party including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
But Mr. Ryan’s reprimand of Rep. Steve King of Iowa for his tweet on Sunday didn’t go far enough, says House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The California congresswoman insisted on Tuesday that Mr. King be removed as chair of a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, a demand that Mr. Ryan’s office shrugged off.
In one sense, Ryan’s tongue-lashing of King isn’t too different from the way his predecessor handled the tea party conservative. After one of King’s most infamous comments – that young Mexicans have “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana across the border – John Boehner publicly called King’s commentary “deeply offensive” and privately called him something much worse.
But political commentators say King’s latest tweet comes at a much different time. Leaders of extreme right organizations and hate groups have said they feel emboldened by the Trump administration, with a president who has talked about a Muslim ban and issued broad characterizations of undocumented immigrants as violent criminals, as well as a chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who has expressed admiration for views that many see as anti-immigration, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim. Meanwhile, Republicans are in control of both Congress and the presidency for the first time in 11 years, an opportunity for them to rewrite the law books.
This context, say some political observers, has put Ryan in a bind, as he seeks to drum up legislative support among hardline conservatives, especially for the American Health Care Act.
“He may feel there is nothing for him to gain for pushing King or doing what Pelosi requests, ” says Dianne Pinderhughes, a political scientist and chair of Africana studies at the University of Notre Dame. “In an earlier decade, that would have been considered an inappropriate comment, and, who knows, [King] might have been removed.”
Ryan did come down on King for writing in the tweet that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
“I disagree with that statement. I haven't seen the context, but I disagree,” Ryan said during an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier. “I haven't spoken to Steve about this. I'd like to think that he misspoke and it wasn't really meant the way that that sounds and hopefully he's clarified that.”
But King doubled down the next day in an interview on CNN’s “New Day.” “I meant exactly what I said,” he told host Chris Cuomo, adding he is a “champion of Western civilization,” a term he has used before to describe "every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world.”
The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips added that Ryan’s censure came a whole 28 hours after the infamous tweet, and after a handful of Republicans had distanced themselves from the Iowa congressmen.
On Tuesday, Rep. Pelosi suggested that Ryan gave King a slap on the wrist when he should take his gavel away.
“Steve King’s racist statements must be called out as unacceptable, and the tepid, brush-off response from the Speaker and the GOP leadership is disgraceful,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Where are Speaker Ryan and the GOP leadership? Does their silence mean Congressman Steve King’s vile racism is acceptable? House Republicans think they can keep quiet, but their contempt for the great diversity of our nation is being heard loud and clear.”
A Ryan spokeswoman implied Pelosi’s demand was hypocritical, telling several outlets that the speaker’s office would comment once Pelosi responds to questions about a joke about White House counselor Kellyanne Conway that some considered lewd. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) of Louisiana, who made the joke at a Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, has since apologized.
A fourth-term congressman from Iowa’s most conservative district, King has built a reputation for outlandish, some would say, racist comments ever since he was first elected in 2003. He has suggested an electrified fence should be put up on the Mexican border to shock migrants like cattle, called former President Obama “Kim Jong POTUS,” and brushed off abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison as “hazing.”
King has also not been particularly effective in getting legislation to pass, Mack Shelley, a political science professor at Iowa State University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Wednesday. But Dr. Shelley says that King is a prominent voice for the conservatives he represents, and popular among other far-right conservatives in the House. During the Obama presidency, for instance, King was considered part of a group of conservative lawmakers known as the “hell no” caucus for their stances on immigration reform.
If Ryan were to remove King as chairman, says Shelley, it would send a “bad message” to several dozen other conservative lawmakers who “tend to agree with everything King says and does.”
There is precedent for the actions Pelosi has called for. In 2015, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R) stripped Rep. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina of his subcommittee chairmanship days after Mr. Meadows defied leadership on the House floor by voting against a party-line procedural motion.
Politico’s Lauren French and Jake Sherman wrote then that losing this post midway through a congressional session is “among the most serious punishments thus far in Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) majority.” But that rebuke appeared to have been motivated by Boehner's desire to keep party members in line, and was not a stand taken on moral grounds.
Boehner also came down hard on King for his cantaloupe comment. But, as the Atlantic’s David Graham wrote, King was in Boehner's majority a “back-bench extremist, the sort of member who leaders like Boehner grumbled about and largely ignored."
“Now, however, Boehner is retired and King is ascendant. Having initially backed Senator Ted Cruz during the GOP primary, he then became a close ally and fierce champion of Donald Trump,” wrote Mr. Graham.
Some of King’s Republican colleagues in the House swiftly denounced King’s tweet. Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan, whose parents are Palestinian and Syrian, asked King on Twitter, “Am I 'somebody else’s' baby because my parents are immigrants?” Members of the Republican Party of Iowa condemned King too, also taking aim at the praise he received from former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.
“First of all, I do not agree with Congressman King's statement. We are a nation of immigrants, and diversity is the strength of any nation and any community,” said Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “Regarding David Duke, his words and sentiments are absolute garbage. He is not welcome in our wonderful state.”
“These kinds of remarks put Iowa's Republican leaders in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly distance themselves, but not do it so strongly as to jeopardize their standing with King's voters,” writes Rekha Basu, a columnist for The Des Moines Register.
Several prominent editorials, most notably from The New York Times and The Washington Post, have tied King’s comments to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump and the opinions of his chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“The dots have been piling up,” writes the Times’s Editorial Board. “There are so many, they are starting to connect themselves. The picture is of a president waging a toxic campaign of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, creating fear that foreign hordes threaten our existence. That campaign emboldens extremists like Mr. King and taints the entire GOP.”
But Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the Monitor in a phone interview on Wednesday that this connection between the GOP and questions of racism is decades old, an argument he most recently made in his book, “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class.”
What Mr. Haney López says is new are strong words from the likes of the Times and the Post and calls-to-action by Pelosi and others.
“[She] is not just saying that’s an outrageous statement. She’s saying that sort of statement ought to have consequences,” says Haney López.