GOP's Scalise saga worsens: White House aggressively trolls House leadership

The furor over Steve Scalise's dicey associations seemed to be calming. The White House is trying to keep it alive

Published January 6, 2015 8:08PM (EST)

Steve Scalise, Kevin McCarthy                     (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite)
Steve Scalise, Kevin McCarthy (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta/J. Scott Applewhite)

You may have missed the BREAKING POLITICAL NEWS that BROKE in the final week of 2014 about how a top Republican may kinda-sorta be racist, or at least have "talked to racists" at some point in his life. If either of these things is true, then House majority whip Steve Scalise is... basically just like any Republican politician from the past 40 years. We hope that you missed this story because you were spending the holidays doing better things than "reading Internet politics articles about some racist." Racist Republican dudes can always wait; holiday cheer is fleeting.

To catch you up to speed: It was revealed last week that new-ish House majority whip Steve Scalise, chief cattle-herder and no. 3 overall guy in the Republican leadership, gave a speech to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) in 2002. That's the white supremacist group founded by former Klansman and Louisiana politician David Duke. A couple of days ago, a Louisiana reporter claimed that Scalise also liked to describe himself as "David Duke without the baggage" early in his political career.

Some conservative commentators have argued that Scalise should resign his leadership position. He's just some whip, after all. But Speaker John Boehner and majority leader Kevin McCarthy have stood by their man. Incoming Republican Rep. Mia Love, who is black, has also defended Scalise, which makes everything okay.

It was likely the hope of Boehner, McCarthy and everyone else in the GOP who's responsible for protecting the party's "national image" that the revelation would enter and exit the news cycle during the quiet period between Christmas and New Year's without becoming a whole big protracted thing. Not a bad bet: by Sunday night, the Scalise-talking-to-racists story seemed to be settling into its plot in the graveyard of news cycles past. New, important items, like the New Jersey governor hugging people at a football game in Texas, would take their rightful places leading "the conversation."

But the White House wasn't that interested in letting this latest episode of "Republican leader caught being racist/talking to racists" finish its course just yet.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked about Scalise, and what should be done with him, at Monday's press briefing. We'd have expected him to say something like, "It's up to the Republicans to decide who they want to be in their leadership" and leave it at that. And sure enough, that's where he started: "It’s ultimately their decision to make."

But then Earnest added: "There’s no arguing that who Republicans decide to elevate into a leadership position says a lot about what the conference’s priorities and values are." Meow! He didn't stop there, either:

Mr. Earnest three times referred to Mr. Scalise’s reported description of himself as “David Duke without the baggage” — a quote he reportedly gave to a veteran Louisiana journalist 20 years ago.

Republicans have talked extensively about the “need to broaden their appeal to young people, and to women, to gays and to minorities.The success of their party will depend on their ability to broaden their outreach,” Mr. Earnest said.

“It ultimately will be up to individual Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not elevating Mr. Scalise into leadership will effectively reinforce that strategy. I’m sure that part of that decision will be what kind of message it sends.”

This is a surprisingly comprehensive trolling effort from the White House. We've got the passive-aggressive "what they do will say a lot about their values" trolling, the "they need to consider what's best for their party" concern trolling, and the aggressive-aggressive "He called himself 'David Duke without the baggage!' for God's sake" trolling. That last one is most notable, given that it's just one reporter's claim that that's how Steve Scalise liked to describe himself. (What even is "David Duke without the baggage" anyway? Someone who's really racist but does a decent job keeping it on the down-low? Someone who's good at politics but not racist? Between those two possibilities we've described a lot prominent politicians, and most of them wouldn't think to call themselves "David Duke without the baggage," so it's got to be something else.)

Anyway, Steve Scalise better step down his leadership role immediately, otherwise people might get the impression that the Republican party turns a blind eye towards racism.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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David Duke Editor's Picks Gop House Louisiana Racism Steve Scalise The Right White House