White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeated a claim that Rep. Steve Scalise years ago described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” but said whether he should remain on the House GOP leadership team is up to Republicans.
At the first press briefing of the year, reporters on Monday asked Earnest whether President Obama believes Scalise should remain in the No. 3 House Republican leadership position after news broke over the holidays that he spoke to a group affiliated with white supremacist David Duke in 2002.
Earnest said it’s up to Republicans to decide whether Scalise should remain as House majority whip but also stressed that the party needs to determine whether he reflects their values.
“Scalise said he was 'David Duke without the baggage,' so it’s up to the Republican conference to decide” whether he should remain in a leadership position, he said.
He also highlighted recent GOP efforts to broaden their appeal to young people, women and minorities.
“Ultimately, it’s up to individual Republicans to decide whether or not elevating Mr. Scalise into leadership will effectively reinforce that strategy,” he said.
Earnest was referring to a recent claim from a longtime Louisiana reporter who writes for the New Orleans Advocate that Scalise described himself as “David Duke without the baggage” in an exchange with her nearly 20 years ago when he was just starting out in the Louisiana legislature.
The reporter, Stephanie Grace, said she believed Scalise was disavowing Duke’s past and his racist and anti-Semitic views, but was struck that he would try to strike any similarities with the former KKK wizard.
“Scalise may have been naïve about how to express himself to a newcomer, but he was already a savvy politician who knew that, even though Duke had lost the governor’s race a few years earlier, Duke voters were still around,” she wrote. “And those Duke voters also were potential Scalise voters.”
Scalise has tried to distance himself from Duke in recent days, but several reports have shown he has longtime ties to a top Duke political operative, Kenneth Knight.
After news of the 2002 speech to the group broke, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced their support for Scalise, arguing that it was an isolated incident.