Hill Republicans walk tight line on Trump

Paul Ryan calls out Donald Trump on KKK
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    Paul Ryan calls out Donald Trump on KKK

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Paul Ryan calls out Donald Trump on KKK 01:04

Story highlights

  • House and Senate Republican leaders are denouncing Trump's comments on the Ku Klux Klan but avoiding severing all ties with him
  • It's a risky move for many lawmakers who represent states and districts where Trump is popular among Republican voters

Washington (CNN)Congressional Republican leaders publicly rebuked Donald Trump on Tuesday for not quickly and firmly condemning the Ku Klux Klan in a recent CNN interview. But on the eve of Super Tuesday wins for Trump, those same leaders and most rank-and-file Republicans on Capitol Hill were careful about totally severing ties with the billionaire businessman, who is attracting support across a wide range of voters.

House Speaker Paul Ryan blasted Trump's handling of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke's support, telling reporters Tuesday, "If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people's prejudices."
    But when pressed if that meant he would oppose Trump if he became the nominee, Ryan repeated a line delivered by many Republican lawmakers around the Capitol recently: "My plan is to support the nominee."
    Trump's dominance in the Republican primaries is wreaking havoc for many Republican lawmakers -- especially those up for re-election -- who may want to distance themselves from the trash-talking reality show star, but who are afraid it will turn off the voters who are showing up at the polls in record high numbers to vote for Trump.
    Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who told CNN Monday that he worried Trump could be an "albatross" around down-ballot candidates, said Tuesday that candidates should do what they need to do to distance themselves from any controversy that could hurt their chances this fall.
    "I think no matter who is elected president of the United States in November, it's important we maintain the Republican majority in the United States Senate. The Supreme Court vacancy, if nothing else, ought to cause people to reach that conclusion, so whatever people need to do in their individual races on order to maintain that majority, I wholeheartedly support," Cornyn said.
    Democrats are confident Republican congressional candidates will be forced to deal with the "baggage" Trump or one of the other GOP presidential contenders would bring with them, said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who heads the Senate Democrats' campaign organization.
    "Whoever they nominate, if they're going to be out of the mainstream, which obviously he is, it puts them in a bind," Tester said.
    Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, who is up for re-election, told reporters, "I'll support the ticket and I'm not endorsing anyone." But he declined to weigh in on questions about Trump, saying, "I'm not going to talk about it any further than that," quipping on his way into a closed-door lunch with Senate Republicans, "I'm going in here because if I don't say something stupid to these questions, I might win."
    The third-ranking Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota, who also is running for a new term, predicted there could be more splits from the GOP front-runner.
    "There are going to be times that you're not going to agree with the person that's leading your party" and "that's always the case and I don't think this year will be any different," Thune said.
    "I intend to support the nominee. I've said that from the very beginning," said Thune, who said he would like Trump to "clarify" his KKK comments.
    Trump, however, suggested Tuesday night that he would "get along great with Congress" -- but that he would pursue his agenda regardless of whether he had their support.
    "Paul Ryan, I don't know him well, but I'm sure I'm going to get along great with him," Trump said. "But if I don't, he's going to have to pay a big price, OK?" Trump said in a victory speech.

    Safe Republicans critical of Trump

    A small group of Republican senators -- notably none of whom are up for re-election this year -- were especially critical of Trump on Tuesday.
    "It's not hard to denounce the KKK. That does not take any thought whatsoever," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
    "It would be very difficult to support Donald Trump," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.
    "It's a concern to have Trump on the top of the ticket. It's a concern for anyone on the ballot," Flake said. "Some of us feel we have a responsibility to speak out when he makes outlandish, crazy statements like the Muslim ban or a number of others."
    "I don't believe Trump supports the KKK or is a racist, I just think he's playing politics in a very clever fashion and he's going to get burned here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also sought the Republican nomination for president before dropping out. "Maybe someone told him you don't need to go there, you may lose a few votes, and he tried to recalculate."
    Graham said he thinks voters will be fair and won't hold Republican Senate candidates -- like his friend John McCain, who is running for re-election in Arizona -- accountable for Trump's controversial statements and positions.
    Thune said candidates for the House and Senate have to "run to win your election."
    "The only thing you can do is control the things you can control. And so our candidates are raising money, they're organizing, they're carrying their own message in their own states and they're going to have to put together a winning campaign there irrespective of what happens on the national ticket," he said.
    Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who backs Sen. Marco Rubio for president, reiterated his position that he would back whoever the Republican nominee is.
    Hatch downplayed any fallout for GOP candidates potentially running on the same ticket as Trump because congressional candidates can speak out and differentiate their position.
    "I think it's up to us to make it clear that we don't tolerate those types of racist organizations and I don't know many people who would believe that we do. I think deep down, I don't think Donald Trump tolerates it either. I think he is just inexperienced in expressing himself at things like that."

    Republican lawmakers still holding back

    Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, told reporters he would back whoever the GOP nominates for president, but when pressed about Trump, joked, "I'm working on Tom Selleck to get in the race."
    Asked if he had concerns about Trump's recent comments, Roberts, a Rubio supporter, responded, "which ones?"
    Hatch said it's inevitable that Republicans will have to answer questions about any controversial comments from the front-runner in their party, but referring to Trump, he said, "he does make more than the average person, put it that way."
    Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, was pushing for Rubio and Cruz to come up with a unity ticket to counter Trump. But on Tuesday he said his party faces a "mathematical problem rather than a political problem, and a divided conservative base may be overwhelmed by those who are looking at the bright political shiny object that has anything but a conservative record."
    Franks said he would face an "impossible conundrum" if Trump wins the nomination, but told reporters he would vote for him if he is the candidate facing Hillary Clinton in November.