In his first real test as the Republican standard bearer, Donald Trump responded to America’s deadliest mass shooting in history Monday by re-upping his ban on Muslims and insinuating that President Barack Obama was somehow in cahoots with Islamic terrorists.
Trump’s incendiary and divisive message increased pressure on Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who were in an already untenable position: answering for a nominee who they did not agree with on tone or even in substance.
“I am not gonna comment for Donald Trump,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told reporters Monday as she boarded a Capitol Hill subway. “My own personal feeling, I am very sympathetic and want to express my condolences to those family members, but I can’t speak for Donald Trump.”
Ernst added she didn’t support any ban on Muslims coming to the United States.
When asked what he thought of Trump’s response to the Orlando shooting that left 50 dead, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) dodged the question.
“There you go again, asking me about Trump.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said he hadn’t “had a chance” to completely evaluate Trump’s response on Monday evening.
“I am not going to make a career out of responding to every comment and every tweet,” Wicker said.
Reporters kept asking. What did he think of the ban on Muslims? What about Trump’s statement that Obama should resign?
“I have been on a train and I haven’t had a chance to look at any of those,” Wicker said.
“I expect the president will not resign,” he added.
The magnitude of the tragedy over the weekend and Trump’s response to it, once again put Republican senators in the hot seat as they were forced to contend Monday with both their nominee and the growing call to pass Democratic- sponsored legislation that they say would keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists.
“You know, I’m just not gonna comment on stuff, we’ve gone through this before,” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) said on how to combat gun violence. “We’re looking at the terrorist, which I was pleased to see that Secretary Clinton did refer to him as Islamic terrorist. I think that’s an important step for her to make.”
Democrats said Monday morning that they planned to once again bring up an amendment that would ban individuals on the terrorist watchlist from legally purchasing firearms. The Senate voted back in December on the measure. It failed mostly along party lines.
“Let ’em all vote against a bill we are going to bring up as soon as we can [on] the terrorist watchlist. Let ’em all vote no again on that. See how the American people like that,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters Monday.
The alleged Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had legally purchased the two guns he used in the shooting. He had been questioned by the FBI, but was no longer on the terrorism watch list when he bought the guns so it is unlikely the proposed legislation would have been able to stop him from purchasing the guns.
Republicans argued Monday that the real solution wasn’t another gun law, but to expand surveillance capabilities of the FBI.
“The question I would ask them is, ‘Do you actually want to stop these things from happening?’ because this guy was not on the watch list. He’d been investigated twice and the FBI had cleared him so he was not on the watchlist,” Cornyn said. “This is really a counterterrorism debate. This isn’t just about guns.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would not comment on what the Senate would do next or if they would move forward with expanding FBI surveillance abilities.
“I’m my usual loquacious self right now,” McConnell said.