"Lies": Panicked Republicans contradict each other's claims to excuse Trump's "horrible city" diss

Trump allies offered contradictory explanations for Trump's Milwaukee claim — before former president undercut them

By Charles R. Davis

Deputy News Editor

Published June 14, 2024 10:49AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Republican Senators at the National Republican Senatorial Committee building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Thursday, June 13, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Republican Senators at the National Republican Senatorial Committee building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Thursday, June 13, 2024. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Donald Trump's Republican allies on Thursday sought to deny and spin reports that the former president blasted the site of this year's Republican National Convention as a "horrible city" during a meeting on Capitol Hill.

“Milwaukee, where we are having our convention, is a horrible city,” the former president told congressional Republicans, according to PunchBowl News' Jake Sherman. It was a remarkable assessment of Wisconsin’s largest urban area, home not just to next month’s convention — taking place days after the presumptive nominee is due to be sentenced for some of his many alleged crimes — but tens of thousands of people whose votes the three-time candidate will need in November.

“There are about 50,000 Republicans who live right here in the city,” noted Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, Cavalier Johnson, “[and] you’re calling their home ‘horrible.’”

Republican lawmakers then obediently fell into a role that’s grown familiar since Trump took over the GOP eight years ago: that of bumbling spokesperson trying to clean up a public relations disaster.

“Lies,” declared Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis., dismissing the original report — a verbatim quote posted to X by Sherman, based on sources in the meeting with Trump — as the product of a “Democratic shill pretending to be a journalist.” After getting out the standard cry of “liberal media,” Van Orden did not challenge the fact that Trump said what he said but asserted there was context: the Republican candidate, himself just convicted of 34 felonies for falsifying business records after earlier being found liable by a jury for sexual assault, “was specifically referring to … the CRIME RATE in Milwaukee.” To drive the point home, Van Orden shared a screenshot of a year-old article on the city’s homicide rate, which actually fell in 2023 and have further declined nearly 50% so far in 2024.

Was he, though? Not according to another lawmaker, Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., who claimed she was the one that prompted Trump’s outburst. Tenney told a right-wing tabloid. His comment came in the context of a very serious discussion from a real policy wonk, she assured the public.

“The president was just setting forth the policies that he thinks are going to be the winning policies,” she said, going on to clarify that Trump “was specifically talking about voter fraud and places they are identifying — 19 areas — where they know there was voter fraud or there were attempts to prime the pump in favor of Democrats.” According to the New York Post, Tenney said “[s]he didn’t hear the former president say anything about crime.”

In 2020, Trump lost Wisconsin by more than 20,000 votes, a defeat he and his allies have spent years now explaining away with bogus claims of fraud, all rejected by every court that has ever considered them. But let’s stay focused: What’s important is that we now understand Trump was talking specifically — specifically — about violent crime. But he was also, specifically, talking not about homicides but about about elections.

Except: What if the biased mainstream media made up the whole thing and Trump didn’t utter a word about Milwaukee at all?

“I was in the room,” Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., assured his followers on social media. “President Trump did not say this. There is no better place than Wisconsin in July.”

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The problem, as always for the post-2015 GOP, is that the first few hours of a PR crisis always entail ad-libbing, oft contradictory, from Trump surrogates (a role assumed by the vast majority of elected Republicans) who have not yet received their talking points. Go all the way back to 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Trump was awed by the cleansing power of bleach — “[it] will kill the virus in five minutes” — and suggested there had to be “a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning.”

Trying to clean up the mess, then-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany fell back on an old standby: deny the unambiguous remark and blame the press for not casting a literal verbatim quote in a more favorable, disinfecting light. “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context and run with negative headlines," she said.

Trump then dutifully undermined the line about missing context by claiming he was actually telling a very funny joke, as any president would do during an emergency briefing at a time when thousands of Americans were gravely ill with a novel coronavirus. “I was asking the question sarcastically to reporters like you, just to see what would happen,” he said at a later press briefing, falsely asserting that it had come “in the form of a sarcastic question to a reporter.”

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In the case of his Milwaukee gaffe, Trump, following the various explanations offered by his loyalists, told Fox News that he did in fact say it – specifically, with respect to whatever sounds least bad.

“It was very clear what I meant,” he said Thursday. “I said, we’re very concerned with crime. I love Milwaukee, I have great friends in Milwaukee, but it’s, as you know, the crime numbers are terrible. We have to be very careful.”

So he did say it, contra the assertions of one supporter, but it was about crime, contradicting the assertion of another supporter who said it had nothing to do with crime. But, Trump continued, it was also not about Milwaukee’s actually declining rate of violence.

“I was referring to, also, the election, the ballots, the way it went down, it was very bad in Milwaukee,” Trump said, falsely, again.

Democrats, for whom Wisconsin is just as much a must-win as it is for Trump in November, elected to take Trump at his word and accept that, for various reasons, he is afraid of a city that overwhelmingly voted against him in 2016 and 2020.

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., who represents Milwaukee residents, said Thursday that if Trump is indeed concerned about crime in the city than he, a convicted fraudster and court-adjudicated sexual assailant, should do his part to keep it safe.

“I don’t know many people in Milwaukee who have 34 felony counts against them,” she told MSNBC. “So our crime rate sure is going to go up when he joins us,” she added, noting that he also faces dozens more counts in pending state and federal cases over the January 6 insurrection and his apparent theft of national security secrets.

Put aside the spin, she continued, and focus on what we know.

"He's a horrible person," she said.

By Charles R. Davis

Charles R. Davis is Salon's deputy news editor. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The New Republic and Columbia Journalism Review.

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Bryan Steil Cavalier Johnson Claudia Tenney Derrick Van Orden Donald Trump Gwen Moore