In the summer of 2016, Nikki Haley warned that if Republican candidate Donald Trump did not change his rhetoric, the consequences could be deadly.
“I know what that rhetoric can do,” Haley told the Associated Press weeks before the anniversary of a racially driven massacre at an African American church in her home state of South Carolina. “I saw it happen.”
This week, Haley, the Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, spoke out after another mass killing, at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Her message: Don’t blame the president.
When he was a candidate, prominent Republicans and primary rivals expressed alarm about Trump’s criticism of immigrants, his encouragement of violence at his rallies and his hostility toward the media.
But once he was elected president, many of those voices went silent or softened. The Republicans who have crossed Trump during his presidency have paid a steep political price.
“It’s called the absolute moral collapse of the Republican Party,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist and vocal Trump critic. “They live in utter terror that Donald Trump will turn against them, and that fear controls their behavior every day, all the time.”
After the slaughter of 11 at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and mail bombs that authorities say were sent to well-known Democrats and CNN by a fervent Trump supporter, critics have chastised the president, arguing that he and some of his allies have fostered an environment for far-right extremism.
From Trump’s portrayal of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals at the start of his campaign to his blaming of “both sides” for a deadly white-
supremacist rally in Charlottesville, his detractors say he has nudged the country toward a dangerous place.
Few powerful Republicans have joined those focusing their criticism squarely on Trump in recent days.
Haley, who plans to step down from her post at the end of the year, drew widespread attention Tuesday for her tweet the night before urging people not to single out the president.
“I have struggled w/ what happened in Pitts bc it’s so similar to what happened in Chas,” she wrote, apparently referencing the deadly 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“The country was very racially divided @ the time,” Haley continued. “We didn’t once blame Pres. Obama. We focused solely on the lives lost & their families. Have some respect for these families & stop the blame.”
Haley was the Republican governor of South Carolina when nine African American parishioners were killed at a church Bible study. Dylann Roof, a self-described white supremacist, was convicted of 33 counts of federal hate crimes for the shooting and expressed no affection for Obama.
The violence was on her mind a year later as she contemplated Trump’s candidacy. While she told the AP that the anger driving Trump’s supporters was not driven by hate, but rather a frustration with Washington, she wanted him to change his tone.
“The way he communicates that, I wish were different,” she said.
Questioned about her comments, Haley’s office said Tuesday that she “fully stands by her remarks from 2016 and believes to this day that divisive rhetoric is dangerous. But as she noted in her tweet, casting partisan blame in the midst of a tragedy does not help ease anyone’s pain — it only adds more pain and is itself divisive and dangerous.”
Trump, who has strongly condemned the Pittsburgh shooting and visited the city on Tuesday, has complained about media coverage of him in the context of the suspected mail bomber, who has declared support for the president.
“I was in the headline of The Washington Post, my name associated with this crazy bomber,” Trump said Monday in an interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News. “They didn’t do that with President Obama with the church, the horrible situation with the church — they didn’t do that.”
In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was one of Trump’s most outspoken critics in the Republican primaries. Toward the end of his failed bid, Rubio held Trump partly culpable for the chaos at some campaign rallies.
“The protesters are not blameless,” Rubio said, adding of Trump, “This is a man who in rallies has told his supporters to basically beat up the people who are in the crowd and he’ll pay their legal fees.”
In an interview with CNN that same week, Rubio, commenting on Trump’s controversial remarks about Muslims, said: “presidents cannot say anything they want. Presidents have to understand that their words have consequences, often life-and-death consequences for real people in the real world.”
Rubio has criticized heated rhetoric on both sides of the political divide in recent days, rather than calling out Trump directly the way he did as a presidential rival.
“A nation whose most visible leaders & institutions rely on anger to motivate people will eventually become a nation of very angry people,” Rubio tweeted Monday. Asked whether Trump was stoking anger, Rubio offered a broader remark.
“I think our politics stokes anger, and I think all of us to some level have to examine the way we behave,” Rubio told reporters Monday night at a campaign appearance for a House incumbent in Illinois. “I think it’s a moment of reflection for all of us, and the president included, but myself. And by the way so, too, those who cover the president.”
Haley was a supporter of Rubio in her state’s pivotal presidential primary. Trump won the state in the primary and the general election.
Other Republicans who had voiced concerns about Trump’s rhetoric in the past have become more supportive of him. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), both of whom ran against Trump in 2016, have been noticeably less hostile. Cruz, facing reelection, campaigned with Trump this month.
“He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” Graham told CNN in late 2015, after Trump called for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Lately, Graham has been one of Trump’s most vocal champions.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 presidential nominee, delivered an extraordinary speech in 2016 urging fellow Republicans to stop Trump from winning the party’s nomination. Last week, Romney, who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Utah, encouraged Americans to dial down their vitriol, without naming anyone in particular.
“Disgusting, vile threats and actions against fellow Americans and our institutions are sadly unsurprising: hate acts follow hate speech. It is past time for us to turn down and tune out the rabid rhetoric,” Romney tweeted last week.
Erica Werner in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.