House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and other Republican leaders stood in front of the Washington press corps for the first time on Tuesday since news broke last week that the Louisianan had addressed a gathering of white nationalists as a state lawmaker 12 years ago. In his opening remarks to the media, Scalise—whose colleagues only recently installed him to the party's No. 3 ranking position in the chamber—made no mention of his speech to a group started by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Instead, Scalise highlighted his party's agenda in the House, which includes upcoming votes on measures that would approve the Keystone pipeline and modify the Affordable Care Act by changing the definition of full-time employment to 40 hours a week from 30.
“We're going to move forward this week,” Scalise said.
But reporters were interested in the past. Three of the first four questions from the press to Scalise and House Speaker John Boehner were about Scalise's speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO. Scalise answered two with essentially the same answer—that he rejects bigotry of all forms—and referred the press back to written statements his office released last week. “That's where the story ends,” Scalise said.
Boehner defended his colleague, calling the speech “an error in judgment.”
“I know this man,” Boehner said. “I know what's in his heart. He's a decent, honest person who made a mistake. We've all made mistakes.”
Scalise's repeated acknowledgement that it was a mistake to speak to the group, the full-throated support from Boehner, and a crucial endorsement from Cedric Richmond, the only black member of the state's House delegation, suggests that Scalise's job is safe. Also helping him are a pair of news reports from New Orleans that seem to take the steam out of contradictions between Scalise's apology and claims from one of the organizers of the EURO meeting.
Kenny Knight, Duke's former campaign manager, had said Scalise never spoke to EURO. Instead, Knight, said, Scalise spoke to a local neighborhood civic association that Knight had organized to meet at the same hotel, but hours before the EURO event. The Times-Picayune reported last week that Knight—who claimed he was never part of the EURO group—was listed as the group's treasurer on state documents and as the group's state representative on a 2002 news release. On Tuesday, the New Orleans Advocate reported the neighborhood association Knight claimed to represent may never have existed.
Knight didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about the reports. Scalise's spokesman, Moira Smith, hasn't responded to two requests for comment about Knight's version of events.