Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-NV) defense of President Trump’s racist rhetoric is textbook whataboutism.
During a teleconference with constituents on Wednesday evening, Heller was asked how he “can justify standing behind a president” who calls African nations “shithole countries,” as Trump did during a meeting with lawmakers last week. The woman who asked the question also mentioned Trump’s attacks on the media and his brags about groping women as captured in the Access Hollywood tape.
“I mean, how do you stand behind a man like that?” she added.
Heller responded not by addressing the substance of the woman’s question, but by immediately bringing up Bill Clinton.
“Yeah, yeah, well I will tell you, Lynn, you probably did stand behind some of the Democratic presidents that had similar problems,” Heller said, despite the audio not providing any indication that the woman who asked the question was a Democrat. “And I don’t excuse any of these activities and these actions, but I certainly had to have conversations with my daughter when Bill Clinton was doing his activities in the White House also. So, there’s no purity test here.”
“What I’m trying to do is get issues done,” Heller continued. “And whether I’m standing behind the president or whether I’m standing in right field doesn’t matter, it literally doesn’t matter.”
Audio of the call was posted to Twitter by Carson City resident Bailey Bortolin, who confirmed the authenticity of the exchange to ThinkProgress. (Heller’s staff also doesn’t dispute that the audio is authentic.)
@SenDeanHeller just gave his response to Trumps shit hole comments on a rural tele-town hall by accusing the registered R (only way to get on the call) of supporting democratic presidents, pivots to Bill Clinton, says it’s not something that matters, then talks about taxes #NVSen pic.twitter.com/HG3tqFu22i
— Bailey Bortolin (@BaileyBortolin) January 18, 2018
While responding to the woman’s question, Heller went on to make a case that taking a principled stance against Trump’s racism and misogyny would be pointless.
“So we can go back to the campaign, we can take another look at this campaign, but it’s not going to make any difference,” he said. “Right now Donald Trump is President of the United States, and he’s gonna be President of the United States for three more years. I do believe I have an obligation as a representative from the state of Nevada to work with every president.”
Wednesday’s call wasn’t the first time Heller’s support for Trump has become a source of tension during his interactions with constituents. Last month, Laura Packard, a Las Vegas resident who has stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and health insurance through an Affordable Care Act exchange, was kicked out of a town hall event featuring Heller after she tried to ask him why he supports legislation that would strip coverage from people like her.
Trump’s relationship with Heller has been tense at times. During an event at the White House last summer, Trump tried to publicly bully Heller into supporting an Obamacare repeal bill that Heller initially opposed.
Addressing Heller, who was sitting directly to his right, Trump referred to Heller’s opposition to the bill and said, “He wants to remain a Senator, doesn’t he? Okay.” As Heller groaned, Trump added, “And I think the people of your state, which I know very well — I think they are going to appreciate what you hopefully will do.”
Trump’s effort paid dividends. Weeks later, Heller voted in favor of a bill that would’ve had a devastating impact on low-income Nevadans. More than 276,000 residents of the state received coverage thanks to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which the Trumpcare bill would’ve repealed, in addition to costing the state billions of dollars in federal funds.
Heller is up for reelection next year and his seat is a top target for Democrats.