BATTLE CREEK, Mich. – Less than an hour after being impeached, President Donald Trump suggested during a campaign rally that the late Michigan congressman John Dingell might be “looking up” from hell – remarks that Dingell’s widow said “really hurt.”
“Mr. President, let’s set politics aside,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., whose husband, a World War II veteran and the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, died in February at the age of 92. “My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine, and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
Dingell appeared Thursday morning on CNN, and host Alisyn Camerota queued a clip of Trump’s incendiary remarks with Dingell on a split screen. Her face remained stoic through Trump mimicking her voice in a phone call he made to Dingell after her husband died.
But her eyes closed tightly for a moment when Trump arrived at the line she knew was coming.
“John Dingell loved this country,” Dingell said. “He believed in bringing everybody together. He believed in our democracy. And my family’s still hurting.”
But she declined to escalate the war of words with Trump, telling Camerota that going “tit-for-tat” would descend to “his level.”
“I don’t want to politicize his death. It is still something that I’m really grieving over,” she said.
Trump made the comment while complaining that the congresswoman had voted to impeach him, even though he purportedly gave John Dingell “A-plus treatment” during his memorial services. Trump insisted he did not expect anything in return for such treatment. But he nevertheless expressed disbelief that Debbie Dingell would support impeaching him after she thanked him in a February phone call. At the time, Trump had ordered flags lowered to half-staff.
“So she calls me up: ‘It’s the nicest thing that’s ever happened, thank you so much,’ ” Trump said at the rally, mocking the congresswoman’s voice while recounting their call. (Dingell challenged Trump’s recollection Thursday and said he called her.)
” ‘John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down.’ . . . ‘I said, ‘That’s OK. Don’t worry about it.’ “
And then: “Maybe he’s looking up, I don’t know.”
The crowd seemed unsure how to respond to Trump’s insult. Some groaned. Some cheered and clapped. Trump quickly added, “But let’s assume he’s looking down.”
Then he returned to Debbie Dingell, whom he also called “a real beauty,” noting that he had been watching her on television during impeachment proceedings. “I look at her, and she’s so sincere, and what happens? ‘I vote to impeach Trump,’ ” he said.
Dingell later told CNN she hadn’t realized Trump made those comments until a reporter contacted her. “I kind of felt kicked in the stomach,” she said.
House Democrats embraced Dingell on Thursday as she made her way down a Capitol hallway, and she rebuffed questions about Trump. “I’m not going to give it any oxygen. I’m going to keep doing my job,” she said.
Her colleagues walked away expressing exasperation. “My God,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. “He’s mentally ill,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle widely condemned Trump for implying that her husband was in hell as a way to bash the congresswoman’s impeachment vote, calling the president’s words “reprehensible” and “shameful.”
“How dare you?” asked Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich. “I have no words for the pain you are causing my dear friend Debbie Dingell and the people of Michigan right now.”
John Dingell served in Congress for nearly 60 years, from 1955 – when he replaced his father – to 2015, when he retired, and when Debbie Dingell succeeded him.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., called John Dingell “my good friend and a great Michigan legend.”
“I’ve always looked up to John Dingell,” Upton wrote on Twitter. “There was no need to ‘dis’ him in a crass political way. Most unfortunate and an apology is due.”
Other Republicans came to Dingell’s defense as the controversy grew. “Merry Christmas Debbie, you deserve to be able to heal in peace. Those comments were totally unnecessary,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas conservative and frequent Trump defender.
However, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declined to address Trump’s comments Thursday at a news conference, describing the Dingells as “very good individuals.”
Trump’s remarks Wednesday echo his unrelenting attacks against the late senator John McCain of Arizona even after his death, which have drawn criticism from Republicans. In the same way Trump attacked Dingell for voting to impeach him despite “A-plus treatment” for her deceased husband, he went after McCain’s loved ones for not sufficiently thanking him for McCain’s funeral.
“I gave him the kind of funeral he wanted, which as president I had to approve,” Trump inaccurately said in March, apparently referring to authorizing the military transport of his body. “I don’t care about this. I didn’t get a thank-you – that’s OK. We sent him on the way.”
Trump’s comments targeting the Dingells appeared to particularly resonate with McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain. She told Dingell on Twitter: “I’m terribly sorry. Please know that I am thinking of you.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday, but when asked by ABC News about Trump’s comments, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the president as a “counterpuncher” who was “under attack.”
“I am very, very sorry for her loss,” Grisham said on “Good Morning America.” “And I would thank her and I would thank her late husband for all of the service to our country.”
Grisham’s defense was criticized by Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who said Trump’s ” ‘counter punches’ against fallen American heroes and their grieving families are vile, cruel, and disgusting.”
Some religious leaders were critical of Trump using damnation as a political taunt, though the president’s evangelical supports have remained steadfast.
Trump was impeached on the charge of abuse of power by a vote of 230 to 197 Wednesday evening, while the campaign rally was underway. He was impeached on the charge of obstruction of Congress by a vote of 229 to 198.
John Dingell’s death in February, after complications from prostate cancer, drew a bipartisan outpouring of love and condolences. On Feb. 8, the day after he died, Trump issued a presidential proclamation lowering the flags to half-staff for one day “as a mark of respect for the memory and long-standing service” of the congressman.
But on Wednesday night, Trump appeared to take credit for the memorial, saying, “I gave everything,” while referencing the Capitol Rotunda, where some deceased politicians have lain in state, such as McCain.
Dingell rejected Trump’s version of events on CNN and said no such requests or arrangements were made.
“John Dingell wasn’t in the Rotunda,” she said. “I didn’t want anything that was out of the ordinary or something where somebody would do something special.”
The World War II veteran was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, she noted, as a benefit of his service.
“The only person she spoke to while making arrangements was Speaker Pelosi,” Maggie Rousseau, a spokeswoman for Dingell, told The Washington Post, referring to Rep Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “And [Trump] called her after everything had been arranged.”
On Wednesday night, as Trump’s insult spread across the Internet, some unearthed tweets from John Dingell that disapproved of Trump’s behavior.
“We’ve had presidents of almost every stripe, but this one will be remembered as the smallest and most vile,” the former congressman wrote on Christmas Eve last year. “A petty man with no interest in a greater good for us. All I want for Christmas is January 20th, 2021.”
Wednesday’s attack prompted Debbie Dingell to plead for a social course correction.
“We need more civility in this country. Some things should be off-limits,” she said. “And you know what, we’re all human beings.”
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The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.