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Republicans urge Trump to apologize over Dingell remark

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Multiple Republican members of Congress, including a key presidential confidant, called on President Donald Trump to apologize Thursday for suggesting a day earlier that former U.S. Rep. John Dingell might be in hell.

The calls came as a White House spokesman attempted to diffuse the situation by labeling Trump a "counter puncher" and suggesting the president was just "riffing."

Dingell's widow, Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, told The Detroit News it was time to "take a deep breath and think about what we're saying" as her re-election campaign tried to raise money off of the controversy.

The most prominent Trump ally urging an apology is U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has opposed the president's impeachment and occasionally plays golf with Trump.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell attends a conference and rally to mark the 46th anniversary of the passage of Medicare in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in this July 27, 2011, file photo.

Another notable GOP lawmaker demanding an apology is U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, a former Navy SEAL who is active on social media and extolled by party leaders.

"Merry Christmas Debbie, you deserve to be able to heal in peace. Those comments were totally unnecessary," Crenshaw tweeted.

Others urging Trump to apologize included two Republican U.S. House members from Michigan — Reps. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph.

"John Dingell was a well-respected man & I consider Debbie a close colleague and friend," Mitchell tweeted Thursday. "To use his name in such a dishonorable manner at last night’s rally is unacceptable from anyone, let alone the President of the United States. An apology is due, Mr. President."

Mitchell, who plans to retire from Congress at the end of 2020, followed with the tweet "#IStandWithDingell."

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, who spoke at Trump's Wednesday rally, called the president's joke "inappropriate" in a Thursday statement.

"John Dingell was a dedicated public servant who loved this state and provided this country with an incredible lifetime of service," Chatfield added.

Trump made the hell remark on Wednesday night during a rally in Battle Creek. While Trump's two-hour speech touched on a wide array of issues, including the House's votes to impeachment him, his comments about Dingell drew national attention.

Trump criticized Debbie Dingell, John Dingell's wife, for supporting impeachment and said he gave John Dingell the "A+" treatment in terms of funeral honors following his February death.

In return, Rep. Dingell extended to Trump the "most profuse thank you" for the funeral honors and said her husband was "looking down" on them, the president said.

"I said that's OK. Don't worry about it. Maybe he’s looking up, I don’t know. Maybe," Trump said Wednesday night to a mixture of groans, laughter and applause from the Battle Creek crowd of 5,400. “But let's assume he's looking down."

A White House press secretary said on ABC's "Good Morning America" Thursday morning that questions about the Dingell comment would have to be directed to the president, but noted Trump is a "counter-puncher."

"It was a very, very supportive and wild crowd and he was just riffing on some of the things that had been happening the past few days," White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said on the television show.

Dingell appeared Thursday on CNN, saying it was time to "put politics aside on these kinds of shots." Dingell said her late husband earned his burial at Arlington National Cemetery because he was a World War II veteran.

The Republicans in the Michigan delegation "have been incredible," Dingell told The News.

The outpouring of support Wednesday and Thursday served as further proof that her late husband still is "working from above" to bring both parties together the morning after impeachment, she said. 

"Coming out of this, we can all take a deep breath and think about what we’re saying," Dingell said. "I can hear John Dingell telling me to stand up, do my job and take this, especially if it results in more civility being restored and more people understanding they need to respect each other.”

Debbie Dingell's campaign sent out a fundraising message Thursday about Trump's comments.

"We urgently need 500 supporters to step up right now and donate as a way of saying: President Trump, you are not going to get away with bullying and insulting our congresswoman," the message said.

Upton, who served with John Dingell in the U.S. House, tweeted that the comments were "most unfortunate" and an apology was "due."

"I’ve always looked up to John Dingell — my good friend and a great Michigan legend. There was no need to 'dis' him in a crass political way," said Upton, whom a House aide added was with Dingell at a Problem Solvers Caucus dinner when Trump made the comment. 

Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who's now an independent from Cascade Township, tweeted, "Debbie, we are here for you. So many people loved and respected John. Praying for you and your family."

Graham also said Trump should apologize, according to video from the publication The Hill.

"That is out of bounds.” Graham told reporters, according to the video.

Ford Motor Executive Chairman Bill Ford called John Dingell "a close friend" dedicated to serving Michigan and the country over a lifetime. 

“His career was simply legendary," Ford said. "Debbie now carries the baton and does so with elegance and the same focused determination that made John so special.”

John Dingell, the longest-serving member of the U.S. House in history, died in February.