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Voices: Republicans are pretending not to have heard what Trump said — just like old times

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Former president Donald Trump yesterday returned to Washington DC for the first time since leaving the Oval Office. He was here to give a sweeping address at the America First Policy Institute, a think tank run by various alumni of his administration.

In many ways, Trump’s return to the nation’s capital could not have come at a worse time for his party.

Many electoral prognosticators say that the GOP stands a pretty good chance of winning back at least the House of Representatives in the November midterms, though an array of lackluster and extreme candidates threaten their chances of taking control of the Senate. With less than 100 days until the election, Republicans want voters to think about only one president: Joe Biden. They hope to blame the incumbent Democrat for rising prices at the grocery store and the gas station, as well as rising crime.

And yet Trump is muddying their message. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has gone so far as to urge the former president to wait until after the midterms to announce whether he will run for president. “My point to him has always [been], ‘Let’s go win ‘22,’” McCarthy reportedly said.

Instead, Republicans yesterday had to return to their least favorite Trump-era activity: pretending to be unaware of what he had just said.

The former president made headlines yesterday when he suggested that homeless people be housed in suburban tent cities, and that the US should combat drug dealers by emulating authoritarian countries by bringing in the death penalty for drugs offenses. “If you look at countries throughout the world, the ones that don’t have a drug problem are those that institute a very quick trial death penalty sentence for drug dealers,” he said.

I asked McCarthy if he agreed. The Minority Leader asked me in return when Trump floated that proposal. I reminded him that he’d just said it — at a conference McCarthy himself had attended. McCarthy responded by equivocating about “what the Democrats have done at the border” with drugs, adding that fentanyl is now the number one killer of Americans.

The whole affair felt very similar to the days when Republicans would routinely insist they hadn’t seen Trump’s tweets during his presidency. During those days, whenever he made inflammatory remarks that impeded their agenda, I would ask members of the GOP what they thought of his claims — only to be told that they had no idea what I was talking about. That seemed unlikely, considering Trump’s tweets were regularly making international headlines at the time.

Once again, Republicans are facing a massive dilemma: Trump drives his most dogged supporters to the polls, and the party owes him some degree of gratitude for its success with working-class, non-white voters. But at the same time, Republicans need more than Trump’s base to win back Congress. They need to reach dissatisfied suburbanites and even people who voted for Biden, and Trump’s saber-rattling – combined with the fact that it was his three Supreme Court nominees who helped overturn Roe v Wade – could jeopardize their chances at victory.

Trump spoke only hours after his former vice president Mike Pence happened to be in Washington to address a conference of Young America’s Foundation, an organization for conservative students. Throughout his remarks, Pence never mentioned his relationship with Trump directly, instead dwelling on his and his boss’s policy accomplishments. He briefly alluded to the fact that he thought the former president was stuck thinking about the 2020 presidential election when it was important to move forward instead.

Similarly, Pence briefly mentioned the assault at the US Capitol, but didn’t mention how supporters of Trump yelled to “hang Mike Pence.” And the former vice president only mentioned the divide between him and Trump when a conference attendee asked him about it. “I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues,” he said, “but we may differ on focus. I truly do believe that elections are about the future.”

Incidentally, Pence also announced yesterday that his book, So Help Me God, will be released in November. According to the publisher’s summary, the book is the “most robust defense of the Trump record of anyone who served in the administration” – one that “chronicles President Trump’s severing of their relationship on January 6, 2021, when Pence kept his oath to the Constitution.” Pence is clearly trying to show that it was Trump, not he, who fractured the relationship – and that he was a loyal footsoldier in the MAGA movement till the end.

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