The Republican National Committee walked the tightrope Friday in carefully but resolutely denouncing white supremacist groups without criticizing President Donald Trump, who waffled in his own statements in the wake of the deadly clash in Virginia this month.
Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, the RNC approved a raft of resolutions, including one asserting "Nazis, the KKK, white supremacists and others are repulsive, evil and have no fruitful place in the United States."
And while the vote was unanimous, some members had grumbled the resolution was unnecessary and reflected unnecessary defensiveness.
"It's amazing that we have been lured into this argument that we're not racists. It's absurd," said Colorado Republican Chairman Jeff Hays. "Why would we feel compelled to do that?"
The sentiment reflects a difference between RNC leaders concerned about the party's image in light of Trump's latest rhetorical thicket and newer, more ardently pro-Trump state Republican leaders who say such a statement appears defensive.
But this was a priority for Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, as well as for committee members who were openly bothered by Trump's initial resistance to singling out the racist groups after the Charlottesville violence.
Hearing about the grumbling, McDaniel made the rounds Friday morning to reinforce with members that the measure was a priority.
"Every day, I wake up proud that we're the party of Lincoln," McDaniel told the committee Friday. "Condemning violence is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is an American issue."
Backing for Trump
Despite the resolution, there doesn't appear to be a softening of support for the president within the party's national organization.
Rather, what was to be a sleepy, pro-forma late summer gathering seemed to spark renewed backing for the president despite a series of recent setbacks: the GOP's stunning failure to repeal and replace Obamacare; the furious backlash over his comments about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; and the departure of crowd favorite Reince Priebus, the former RNC chairman, as Trump's chief of staff.
"The president was not wrong to point out what the media has failed to point out," that counterprotesters also "came for a battle" in Charlottesville, said Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Val DiGiorgio.
DiGiorgio stood by the "many sides" comment Trump made immediately after the clash in Virginia, in which a car was driven into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman. The president was criticized harshly by both Republicans and Democrats because he didn't immediately denounce the white nationalist groups.
There was palpable contempt in the conference room for counterprotesters who were ready to fight. RNC member Morton Blackwell, who affirmed his support for the resolution, said "Every person who came to Charlottesville intending violence was evil."
Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey who sponsored the resolution, said it was important for the committee to formally denounce white supremacists. Palatucci said, "I think he got it wrong a week ago Tuesday, in regards to Charlottesville," when Trump said during a free-wheeling, defiant news conference that there were "very fine people on both sides" at the demonstration.
But even Palatucci, who was a devout supporter of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's 2016 presidential campaign, said, "I support the president's agenda." He cited deregulation measures Trump has signed and the president's plan, outlined Monday, to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to revive the effort to root out terrorist cells.
Blame for Congress
The party's robust $87 million raised to date — dwarfing what Democrats have raised — has also lifted spirits, as has improving economic confidence.
The consensus in Nashville is that the Republican-controlled Congress, not Trump, has let down the party.
"There is a level of frustration that Congress didn't repeal and replace Obamacare," Ohio Republican Party Chairwoman Jane Timken said. "They want the president's agenda passed. They blame Congress."
While Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have feuded before and since the failed health care vote in July, there was little talk in Nashville of dumping the veteran Kentucky senator as leader.
"I'm not ready to abandon McConnell," Pennsylvania's DiGiorgio said. "But I would urge him to come together and get this done."
Trump has complained about McConnell and other Republican senators who have criticized the president or opposed his efforts. He notably pointed to Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republicans, during an angry speech to supporters in Phoenix on Tuesday.
Trump's intraparty attacks have some GOP strategists worried that the fighting could harm Republicans' chances of holding the Senate in next year's midterm elections, though that would require Democrats to retain almost all the 10 seats they occupy in states Trump won last year.
Chairwoman McDaniel said Trump's taunts are the outspoken New Yorker's way of urging action.
"The president wants to see his agenda passed," McDaniel said. "He's channeling what I'm hearing from the American people, which is, `We gave you the White House. You have the Senate. You have the House. Why aren't you getting these things done?"'