Some Republicans spoke up against Trump's suggestion that the women should "go back" to the countries they came from. But others leveled their criticism of Trump in careful comments that also criticized the women. Most notably, the GOP leadership in Congress said more than most by staying silent or defending the president's incendiary remarks.
The result is that once again Republicans in Congress are allowing Trump to break the norms of civic behavior — as when he equivocated over the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville and used a vulgarity to describe immigrants from Africa and other countries — with a muffled response that does little to change outcomes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to discuss the situation after he opened the chamber Monday, telling reporters he'd "address whatever questions you have" at his regularly scheduled news conference Tuesday.
Asked if Trump's comments were racist, the top Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy of California, said: "This is about ideology. And the ideology of the Democratic Party is socialist. This debate is going to go on for a long time."
Part of the problem for Republicans is a strategic one — they, too have piled on the freshmen lawmakers, using their liberal views to scare off voters. Hardly a day goes by without Republicans raising warnings against the "squad" of newcomers: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They have become big money-makers for the GOP, portrayed as a more daunting threat than HouseSpeaker Nancy Pelosi. Omar, a Muslim refugee from Somalia, has been criticized by Republicans almost since she arrived.
With an uneven response from leaders on Capitol Hill, it fell to rank-and-file Republicans to deliver some of the more critical rebukes. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, said in a tweet, "The president failed badly."
Romney said, "The President of the United States has a unique and noble calling to unite the American people — of all different races, colors, and national origins." He called the remarks "destructive, demeaning, and disunifying."
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican senator, said Trump made "unacceptable personal attacks" and used "racially offensive language." For lawmakers in tough reelection battles, the open-ended reaction allowed them to craft the message that best fit their brand.
Sen. Susan Collins, the centrist Maine Republican who faces a potentially tough reelection race alongside Trump in 2020, called the president's comment "way over the line." But Collins also said she disagrees "strongly" with many of the views of the "far-left" members of the House Democrats.
Another Republican up for another term, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, tweeted that people in his state are "sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals." Daines tweeted, "I stand with @realDonaldTrump."
One party leader, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, put Trump's remarks in terms of a political strategy rather than the moral or civic debate the comments inspired. "I think it's a mistake and an unforced error," said Cornyn. "I don't think the president is a racist."
Strategic thinking has guided Republicans throughout the Trump era, as they have repeatedly shown they are unwilling, and unable, to confront Trump even when he pushes the outer bounds of political rhetoric.
When Trump derided immigrants from Africa and Caribbean countries with a vulgarity, saying he preferred those from places like Norway, some Republicans objected. But two Republicans who were in the private meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, issued a statement at the time saying they could not recall the president using that specific insult.
When Trump said there were good people "on both sides" of a white supremacist neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of a protester, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump "messed up."
On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted that the "'Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen" should "go back" and help fix the "broken and crime infested" countries they came from and then return and "show us how it is done."
Trump almost certainly was referring to the four new lawmakers — Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib — who are among the most outspoken against Trump administration policies and have made headlines in their ongoing divisions with Pelosi. They all support impeachment.
Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, Pressley in Cincinnati, Tlaib in Detroit. Omar has been a top target of Republicans for being critical of the U.S., and of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
By Monday, as the White House sought to smooth Trump's tweets, the president doubled down and said it was up to the women to apologize for "their horrible & disgusting actions!" One Republican ally of Trump's, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, piled on, calling the women "communists" and "anti-American" as he also sought to nudge the president to focus on their policies.
It was left to lesser-known Republicans to offer some of the strongest rebuttals. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, said the president's tweets were "racist" and Trump should apologize. "We must work as a country to rise above hate, not enable it," said the nine-term congressman.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska, said, "There is no excuse for the president's spiteful comments — they were absolutely unacceptable and this needs to stop." Pressed Monday on whether the women should go, McCarthy, the House minority leader, conceded that "nobody believes somebody should leave the country."
McCarthy added, "The president is not a racist."
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Monika Mathur in Washington; David Eggert in Lansing, Mich.; and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.