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Amid latest Trump uproar, Wisconsin GOP politicians reluctant to criticize president directly

By Craig Gilbert

President Donald Trump’s comments about the violence in Charlottesville, Va., have ignited an outcry across the political spectrum, from conservative radio hosts to liberal lawmakers.

On the left, Democratic congresswoman Gwen Moore of Milwaukee called for Trump’s removal from office, accusing the president of giving "cover" to neo-Nazis and saying in a radio interview, “We are watching the president of the United States break down in public … We are in an emergency situation … I think this president is losing it.”

On the right, conservative radio host Jerry Bader of Green Bay, a frequent Trump critic, said on Twitter that the president’s remarks were “vile, repugnant and clearly illustrate he is not fit to hold the office of president.”

One Republican congressman from Wisconsin, Mike Gallagher, said Trump was "currently failing" in his handling of the issue.

But many GOP politicians who were bothered by Trump's remarks remained reluctant to criticize him directly, a pattern familiar from past firestorms involving the president.

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville distanced himself from Trump on Twitter but did not criticize the president by name, saying Tuesday, “There can be no moral ambiguity” and, “white supremacy is repulsive.”

Asked by reporters in Madison Wednesday, “Are you comfortable with what the president said about this issue?” Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson said, “Not entirely, no.”

Like Ryan, Johnson condemned white supremacists but stopped short of rebuking the president. In response to a reporter’s question, the senator said he did not regard the president as racist.

Gallagher, a Marine veteran and GOP House freshman, offered a sterner rebuke of the president in this statement:

"Those who took part in the shameful display of hatred, bigotry, and violence in Charlottesville could learn from the young Marines of all races and creeds with whom I served in Iraq," Gallagher said. "White nationalism and racism are antithetical to our fundamental values. The president needs to be crystal clear that hatred has no place in our society, but he is currently failing at it."

This latest and perhaps greatest uproar over the president’s rhetoric was sparked by Trump’s press conference Tuesday when he cast blame “on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests, a stance that many interpreted as equating white supremacists with people demonstrating against racism.

The president’s handling of Charlottesville has drawn fierce criticism internationally and in the U.S. In just one example, a growing number of business leaders quit presidential advisory panels over the issue, prompting Trump to disband those panels Wednesday. 

When Johnson was asked about those CEOs in a radio interview with WXCO in Wausau Wednesday, he said, “That’s their own personal decision, and I to a certain extent understand what they’re doing.”

Meeting with reporters in Madison later Wednesday, Johnson said, “I’m not going to speak for the president. I speak for myself. I’ve totally denounced” the white supremacist march.

Johnson called it an “ideology that has no place in this country and our politics.”

Asked about the idea raised by Moore of seeking to remove Trump from office, Johnson was dismissive, saying, “On what grounds?”

Republican Gov. Scott Walker echoed the comments of many Republicans in saying white supremacist groups should be “unilaterally dismissed and denounced,” but did not criticize Trump explicitly.

In comments late Wednesday afternoon, Walker declined to say whether the president's statements reflected racial prejudice.

In an interview on conservative Hugh Hewitt’s national radio show, Gallagher critiqued Trump’s communication style, saying he needs to “have the restraint not to pop off on Twitter” when times demand a more unifying message.

Hewitt, his host, was blunt in his disdain for Trump’s handling of Charlottesville, calling it “disastrous” and a “hot, smoldering mess.”

Moore has been a fierce and consistent critic of Trump.

In an interview Wednesday on 1510-AM in Milwaukee, Moore said his removal could entail either impeachment or use of the 25th Amendment, which provides for removal of a president who is deemed unable to discharge the duties of office.

"I don't feel we can afford to just sit back and wait to see what he does next," said Moore.

Like Moore, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, criticized Republican politicians for not repudiating Trump.

"I am disappointed," Barrett said. "This is a time where you have to put partisanship aside, and you have to talk about what's right. This is not even a close call."

Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin said on Twitter: "People are looking for moral clarity and leadership from President Trump. He has clearly failed the moral test of seeing right from wrong."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said during its session Thursday, the Assembly will vote on a resolution "condemning the ideology of racial hatred that was witnessed by the world in Charlottesville."=

“On Thursday, our actions will speak louder than the ugly words from hate groups. We will approve legislation that will give hope to all Wisconsin families by providing a future that’s rich with career opportunities and a strong, healthy economy,” he said.

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