By JESS KIDDEN
WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans and conservative leaders rallied around President Trump Friday, attempting to minimize political damage after Trump shot down a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City.
“I’m not going to put myself in the position of having to respond to every presidential shooting,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a hastily called press conference at the Capitol, surrounded by members of his leadership team. “I just happen to think it’s important to keep our focus where it belongs, on enacting a conservative, pro-growth agenda that regular Americans care about, such as tax cuts for the rich and the repeal of Medicare.”
Privately, however, at least some Republican members expressed concern about the long-term political impact of such incidents, especially with midterms looming in less than seven months.
“I think that each elected Republican has to make a series of decisions, day in and day out, about whether they find the president's conduct acceptable and to what extent it's appropriate to work with him,” as one frustrated GOP congressman put it, demanding anonymity so he could speak freely. “This shooting is fine for Trump -- he’s not on the ballot this fall -- but he’s putting the rest of us in a really tough position.”
The reaction was similar among Senate Republicans.
“I think we should criticize the president when he’s done something wrong, and applaud him when he’s done something right,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who nonetheless refused to condemn the shooting directly. “The president and I are scheduled to play golf together next week,” Graham said. “If I have concerns -- and I’m not saying I do -- I think it’s more appropriate to express them to the president in private.”
Others, however, were more blunt. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona quickly introduced a resolution warning the president of potential censure should he again pull out a gun and shoot somebody. They withdrew that measure after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that he would not bring it to a floor vote, calling it “divisive”and “unnecessary.”
“I’ve been assured by people in the White House that there are no plans to shoot anybody else, at least not at this point,” McConnell said.
The victim, attorney Michael Avenatti, was shot twice in the back as he left the studios of NBC News at Rockefeller Center after an interview. According to doctors at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, Avenatti is expected to recover with no permanent damage to his mouth or other, less vital organs.
At a regularly scheduled White House press briefing Thursday, spokesperson Sarah Sanders referred all questions about the shooting to the president’s private attorneys.
“Look, I know you folks in the mainstream media are looking for every opportunity to criticize this president, who continues to accomplish amazing things for the American people,” Sanders said. “The economy is stronger than it’s been in ages, ISIS is on the run, the remaking of the judiciary. That’s all far more important than any distractions the media likes to throw out there.”
Sanders also refused to rule out the possibility of Trump issuing an immediate pardon for himself, as first proposed by famed legal scholar Alan Dershowitz.
Despite network TV video of Trump emerging from the presidential limousine, gun in hand, other prominent Trump supporters are questioning whether the shooting occurred at all. Fox News host Sean Hannity used his entire Thursday night segment to explore secret links between Hillary Clinton and Avennati, describing the attorney as a “paid crisis actor” as well as “a clear descendant of immigrants.” According to Hannity, the attack has all the earmarks of a “false flag” operation choreographed by the FBI.
“This is the deep state at work, undermining our democracy, my friends,” Hannity told his audience. “This is an unelected part of your government, looking to overturn a duly elected president. Don’t think this a coincidence -- it is the biggest scandal in American history.”
According to an overnight Quinnipiac poll, 68 percent of Republicans now agree that the shooting never happened. A similar poll from Rasmussen put the number at 93 percent.