WASHINGTON — After years of turning a blind eye to Representative Steve King’s inflammatory statements and racist behavior, Republicans decided this week they had had enough after Mr. King asked The New York Times when phrases like white supremacy and white nationalism became offensive.
But even as they piled on their condemnation, President Trump had used Twitter to mock Senator Elizabeth Warren for not announcing her presidential exploratory committee at Wounded Knee or Little Bighorn, sacred ground for Native Americans whose ancestors fought and died there.
Now Mr. King — a Republican from Iowa who once said that undocumented immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert” — is persona non grata in his party, even as Mr. Trump continues to paint the same migrants as rapists, drug dealers and importers of mayhem.
“Look, it’s been my practice for the last couple of years not to make random observations about the president’s tweeting and other things,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, told reporters on Tuesday, shortly before the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution that cited Mr. King in condemning white supremacy. “Congressman King clearly uttered words that are unacceptable in America today.”
Mr. McConnell, who has suggested that Mr. King find another line of work, was not alone. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, who stripped Mr. King of his committee assignments, suggested it was not his place to rebuke Mr. Trump because the president is not a member of the House Republican Conference. (In fact, the House has the authority to rebuke or censure the president.)
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, another member of the Republican leadership, said much the same: “I think this is about our language inside here. I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be disciplining the president. He’s in a different branch than we are.”
Republicans are used to agonizing over how to handle the president’s offensive comments and racially tinged remarks. His comments after the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., where he said there were “fine people on both sides,” sent party leaders scurrying for cover, even as they took care not to criticize Mr. Trump directly.
“We must be clear,” Paul D. Ryan, then the speaker of the House, wrote on Twitter at the time. “White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
And after the president’s tweet on Sunday night about Wounded Knee infuriated Native American leaders in his state, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, issued a mild rebuke of the president.
“I wish he wouldn’t tweet as much,” Mr. Thune told reporters, adding, “That’s obviously a very sensitive part of our state’s history. So yeah, I wish he’d stay away from it.”
But generally, elected Republicans have let the president slide.
“They know on some level that their defense of Trump is morally unsupportable, and so when they get a chance to speak out against Steve King, who doesn’t have any power over them and doesn’t pose a threat to them, a lot of them are falling over themselves to condemn him,” said Peter Wehner, who advised President George W. Bush on domestic policy. “But you can’t condemn Steve King and not condemn Donald Trump and pretend that you’re doing the right moral and ethical thing.”
In Mr. King, Republicans seem happy to have found an opportunity to condemn racism without attacking the president. After taking a beating in the 2018 midterm elections — which produced a freshman Republican class that is almost entirely white and male and boosted the share of white men in the House Republican Conference to 90 percent — Republicans are also well aware that the party needs to overhaul its image.
But Mr. Trump’s critics within the party say that no overhaul can be complete without denouncing the president.
Michael Gerson, who was the top speechwriter for Mr. Bush, published an opinion article in The Washington Post this week that carried the headline, “Republicans Need to Condemn Trump’s Brazen Bigotry.”
Mr. Wehner agreed: “It’s a massive inconsistency and a sign of cowardice and intimidation on the part of Republicans — and I think also a sign of a guilty conscience.”
After Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, said Tuesday on television that Mr. King’s comment’s were “absolutely abhorrent” and “racist,” Mr. Wehner took to Twitter: “I wonder if Liz Cheney would say the same thing about Donald Trump?” he wrote.
But some Republicans say they cannot be the word police, and note that Democrats were in no rush to condemn Representative Rashida Tlaib, a freshman from Michigan, after she used a vulgarity to call for the impeachment of the president. Others insisted that the president’s comments have not been as offensive as those of Mr. King’s.
“It’s just very different — the context of what is said, the way of what is said, it’s very different,” said Representative Mark Meadow, Republican of North Carolina and a close ally of the president’s. “I’m not going to go back and go through all of his quotes, but it’s very different.”
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