Donald Trump's explosive remarks calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S." quickly sparked an enormous amount of criticism on both sides of the political spectrum. But prominent Republican leaders were more cautious as they searched for a way to admonish the man leading the race for their party's presidential nomination.
Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, who in August called Trump's candidacy a "net positive" for the party, pushed back briefly against Trump's proposal. "I don't agree," Priebus told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values."
He wouldn't further elaborate, saying, "That's as far as I'm going to go."
The episode is the latest of many outbursts during the Republican primary by the New York billionaire that has put the party committee in a bind between its core voter base and its desire to expand its appeal in the U.S. electorate.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton moved to exploit that dilemma on Tuesday, suggesting in an online post and public appearances that Trump's rhetoric is part of the Republican brand. Before an audience in New Hampshire, she said that Trump is "trafficking in prejudice and paranoia" but added that others in the Republican field have said "extreme things about Muslims" albeit in "more veiled" terms.
The top two Republican leaders in Congress wouldn't use Trump's name when disavowing his proposal on Tuesday, while also vowing to support him if he became the nominee.
"This is not conservatism," House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, taking the rare step of rebuking a Republican presidential candidate. "What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for."
Ryan said there are Muslims who are fighting and dying for the U.S., who are serving Americans in Congress, and who are allies around the world. But he said he's "not worried about lasting damage to our party," and added that he's "going to support whoever the Republican nominee is."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Trump's idea was "completely inconsistent with American values" and also "unworkable." Asked if he'd support Trump if he's the nominee, McConnell signaled he would. "Well I'm certainly going to support the Republican nominee for president," he said.
Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner, also disagrees with Trump. "Speaker Boehner does not support the plan and agrees with the comments Speaker Ryan made about it this morning," David Schnittger, his spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker told Bloomberg Politics that Trump's proposal is "certainly not a policy that's serious." Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who has endorsed Senator Marco Rubio, responded by calling Trump a "buffoon."
Behind GOP Caution
One senior Republican strategist who works for a company that advises campaigns explained why the establishment may be cautious.
Based on his takeaway from focus groups, Trump is "bringing in disaffected Republicans who are fed up with everything. It goes beyond Tea Party," said the Republican, who requested anonymity to discuss strategy candidly. These supporters "discount what's being said about him," he said. "It's in one ear and out the other."
The strategist said Trump has a group of "hard-core followers" equal to about 20 to 25 percent of the Republican vote. "In a race of 15 candidates, 20 to 25 percent makes you king," he observed. "But it doesn't win you the election." Republicans have to walk a tightrope, he said. While "it's dangerous not to come out and disavow some of the things he's saying," personalizing attacks on Trump could be counterproductive. Defeating Trump is not a matter of carpet-bombing him, he continued, but rather a matter of winnowing the Republican field and consolidating behind an alternative.
Another possible reason for the RNC's hesitation to unequivocally disavow Trump is that the businessman has subtly threatened to run an independent bid for the presidency if he's mistreated by the party, a scenario that many Republican strategists and political analysts say would hand Democrats the White House.
A poll released Tuesday by USA Today/Suffolk indicates there's a good reason for the anxiety: 68 percent of Trump supporters said they'd vote for him if he ditched the GOP and ran as an independent candidate. Just 18 percent said they would not.
Taking Issue, Softly
Other senators tried to make clear that they did not agree with Trump, though in softer tones.
"I think that's the wrong thing. I know him personally, like him personally," said Senator Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican. "That's problematic for him to say that. ... It concerns me. If that's the attitude, we may be losing some of the greatness of America. ... I just think that we should be very careful about excluding people from coming here who otherwise are people we should be helping."
Senator Johnny Isakson wanted more information about Trump's plan before judging. "You can't ban a U.S. citizen from entering the United States," the Georgian said. Asked if tourists and those on student visas should be banned, as Trump has proposed, Isakson said, "I didn't hear the whole proposal."
Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma said Trump's proposal didn't make sense to him. "If he were to say radical Islam, that would be different. But not just Muslims," he said. "I don't think [Trump's idea is] a healthy thing to do."
"He doesn't speak for every Republican," Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa told Bloomberg Politics. "It does concern me quite a bit."
Democrats on the Hill
Democrats argued that Trump is a true reflection of his party, not an outlier.
"Sadly, Donald Trump has become the Republican Party," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said on Senate floor Tuesday. He said the candidate's "platform of hate" is one that the party has built for him. "Trump is just saying out loud what other Republicans leaders merely suggest," Reid said. He elaborated on Twitter:
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Trump's "carnival barker routine" is well known and that the "question now is about the rest of the Republican Party and if they're going to be dragged into the dustbin of history with him." He called on all Republicans to "say right now that they will not support Donald Trump for president," describing his remarks as disqualifying and a threat to U.S. national security.
"It's a gift to ISIS," said Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "It falls right into their game plan."
—Jennier Epstein, Kathy Kiely, Billy House, and Kathleen Miller contributed reporting.