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The GOP reacts to President Biden's speech condemning "MAGA republican" extremism

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last night during a rare primetime speech, President Biden delivered a warning and took direct aim at the former president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.

CHANG: Biden went on to say that the country is at an inflection point and that, quote, "America must choose to move forward or to move backwards." Now, there are a lot of Republicans out there who were not pleased with the speech, to say the least. And to talk more about that, we're going to bring in former Republican Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia. Welcome.

BARBARA COMSTOCK: Great to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Great to have you. OK. So what stood out to you the most from the president's speech last night?

COMSTOCK: Well, listen. I am not a MAGA Republican. But the way I would have framed it - so I agree with the theme, but the way I would have framed it is I would have more highlighted Donald Trump and his Trump-supported candidates. And I - so I would have highlighted things like, you know, just this week, Trump demanded that he be unconstitutionally restored to power, be put in the White House, and that just yesterday he promised to pardon people who were violent protesters at the Capitol and beat Capitol Police officers with flagpoles and stormed the Capitol.

And I would have highlighted things like Doug Mastriano, who's running for governor in Pennsylvania, who was one of those people in - at the Capitol on January 6 who's refused to cooperate with the January 6 committee. And he is associating with anti-Semites and who - with the Three Percenters. And he dressed up in a Confederate, you know, outfit just recently - you know, the losers in the Civil War and, you know, has really - you know, has troubling background. And then...

CHANG: OK.

COMSTOCK: I would have highlighted these Trump candidates themselves instead of the more broad brush he did. But...

CHANG: OK.

COMSTOCK: Definitely there is Trump candidates who are a big problem, who are anti-democratic, so I would have highlighted it more like that.

CHANG: OK. So you take issue with things that he did not mention. But I want to talk about the way President Biden parsed the language he did use because he noticeably did not refer to Republicans in general. Rather...

COMSTOCK: Yes.

CHANG: He singled out MAGA Republicans, and he namechecked former President Trump a few times. And I'm wondering. You are a Republican who's been a vocal critic of Trump. Did Biden successfully make that distinction between MAGA Republicans and Republicans who don't support Trump? Or did you feel that Biden was also talking about people like you?

COMSTOCK: No, I don't feel like he was talking about me. But I think he gave other Republicans - I think, you know, gave them an opportunity to kind of say, hey; he was talking about all of us, when I think he clearly wasn't. But I think the political goal, which was to get, you know, everyone talking about Trump - which, you know, now a lot of these Republicans - I think foolishly, many Republicans are now kind of tying themselves to Trump in a way which I think is politically foolish because at a time when Republicans, who seem to have an advantage this year, are now, instead of talking about the economy and gas prices and groceries - instead have now latched themselves to the Mar-a-Lago mess and all of Trump's problems. And at a time when they should do what Glenn Youngkin did last year and talk about kitchen table issues, they're instead tying themselves to this lunacy. And Trump, who, you know, is the guy who lost the House, the Senate, the White House and the two Georgia seats - they now have put their hands in to this man who is all about chaos and losing. And we're seeing all of these candidates who he endorsed...

CHANG: Well, on that point...

COMSTOCK: ...Who are now running behind...

CHANG: On that point...

COMSTOCK: Yeah.

CHANG: A significant portion of your party was outraged by Biden's speech last night - the multiple references to former President Trump. I mean, what do you think that says about Trump's influence over the whole party right now that the conversation is still about him?

COMSTOCK: I think it's deadly to the party. And I think the longer the party stays enthralled to him and tied to him, I think the longer the party is going to be losing in the long term. I think this year you're going to have seats - like the Pennsylvania governor's race, probably the Senate race, other Senate seats like, say, Blake Masters and Kari Lake in Arizona, perhaps Herschel Walker in Georgia - that would have been winnable in what should be a good Republican year are probably going to be lost. And other House seats that should have been won will be lost because they have been Trump-weak candidates when they could have been stronger, mainstream Republicans who are going to be turned off by these, you know, radical Trump candidates who are not sellable to independents and more swing - and Republicans like myself who don't...

CHANG: Well...

COMSTOCK: ...Want to have these...

CHANG: Let me...

COMSTOCK: ...Trump sycophants who are not appealing...

CHANG: Well, let me ask you this.

COMSTOCK: ...To a broader group of people.

CHANG: The fact that President Biden last night chose, instead of to focus on, as you call it, kitchen table issues but instead talk about threats to democracy and, in particular, about former President Trump - did you feel that Biden's speech had the risk of actually elevating Trump's influence in your party in any way? What do you think?

COMSTOCK: Well, no. I think it's important - I mean, the No. 1 issue right now is the threat to democracy that I think Democrats, independents and many Republicans are concerned about. So I do think that's an important issue that all - you know, many Americans are concerned about. It's the No. 1 issue. So I do think it's an issue many people want addressed, understanding...

CHANG: OK.

COMSTOCK: ...It's better to use specifics in how you're addressing it. And I think...

CHANG: OK.

COMSTOCK: ...Going forward, candidates - whether you're Republican or Democrat - should use those specifics. And I think they'll be stronger. And I think - I would reference for everyone - Bill Barr addressed it today when he talked about Mar-a-Lago. I would quote Bill Barr saying, you should all be concerned about what Donald Trump did at Mar-a-Lago because there's no excuse for it. And that's...

CHANG: OK.

COMSTOCK: ...Donald Trump's own attorney general who said that.

CHANG: That is former Republican Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia. Thank you so much for joining us today.

COMSTOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sarah Handel