Trumped by candidate's rhetoric, Republican lawmakers at a loss for words

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The awkward efforts of Republicans to embrace their party’s standard-bearer Donald Trump looked particularly painful in Congress this week as lawmakers ducked into elevators, dashed away from reporters, ignored questions or, worse, tried to answer them.

Republican U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Gilley's in Dallas, Texas, U.S., June 16, 2016. REUTERS/Brandon Wade

Only days after a furor over his criticism of a Mexican-American judge, the presumptive presidential nominee sent Republicans reeling again by renewing his call for a ban on Muslim immigration after a gunman who pledged allegiance to Islamic militants killed of 49 people at a Florida nightclub.

Then former reality TV star Trump waded into two sensitive topics for social conservatives by embracing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and suggesting the country may need certain new gun control measures.

For lawmakers accustomed to well-crafted talking points and predictable lines of questioning, the week marked a chaotic flurry of contorted responses or terse, tight-lipped replies.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming walked away when asked about Trump’s embrace of the LGBT community, saying: “I don’t know what the latest is. I haven’t read anything. I haven’t been watching.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a former Trump adversary in the presidential primaries, had to bat away two Trump questions before he could announce that he is considering running for re-election – a decision that could determine whether Republicans retain control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 election.

Senator Ted Cruz, another rival in the primaries, refused to respond directly to the speech in which Trump hardened his line on Muslims while Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr called it “an OK speech” before stepping into an elevator and refusing to respond to any more questions.

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The Trump challenge is obvious even for seasoned Republicans.

“I’m spending my days commenting on everything that Donald Trump says,” lamented John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee.

Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, ricocheted from rejection of Trump’s comments on Muslims to doubts about the legality of his proposed immigration ban to bafflement over the billionaire’s response to the Orlando shootings.


Trump controversies have also overshadowed House Speaker Paul Ryan’s rollout of a policy agenda, a campaign document that was supposed to help bring Trump’s position more into line with mainline party doctrine.

Asked on Thursday whether he was bothered by having to contend with Trump’s remarks, Ryan called Trump “a different kind of candidate...(in) a different kind of year.”

Asked how many more times he would be called on to do so, Ryan said: “I don’t know the answer to that question either.”

In an ironic message to his critics among the Republican leadership this week, Trump had this to say: “Be quiet, just please be quiet. Don’t talk. Please be quiet. Just be quiet.”

Ryan’s response? “...You can’t make this up sometimes,” he said.

A political neophyte who has never held elected office, Trump has also said he may not need much from his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill anyway.

“We have to have our Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself. I’ll do very well,” he said in a CNN interview. “A lot of people thought I should do that anyway, but I’ll just do it very nicely by myself.”

Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Alana Wise; Editing by Cynthia Osterman