When Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, was asked about former President Donald J. Trump’s now-standard stump line claiming that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” Senator McConnell delivered an indirect but contemptuous response.
“Well, it strikes me it didn’t bother him when he appointed Elaine Chao secretary of transportation,” Mr. McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said. Ms. Chao, who was born in Taiwan and immigrated to America as a child, is married to Mr. McConnell.
Mr. McConnell referred to a feud that has simmered for more than a year over the former president’s racist attacks against Ms. Chao. Mr. Trump, often referring to her by the derisive nickname “Coco Chow,” has suggested that she — and by extension her husband, Mr. McConnell — are beholden to China because of her connections to the country.
Mr. Trump repeated his “poisoning the blood” claim at a rally in New Hampshire on Saturday, prompting an outburst of criticism from Senate Republicans this week.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine told a reporter for The Independent that the former president’s remarks were “deplorable.”
“That was horrible that those comments are just — they have no place, particularly from a former president,” Ms. Collins said.
Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, denounced Mr. Trump’s language as “unacceptable.”
“I think that that rhetoric is very inappropriate,” Mr. Rounds said, according to NBC News. “But this administration’s policies are feeding right into it. And so, I disagree with that. I think we should celebrate our diversity.”
Mr. McConnell’s own oblique retort, which did not directly criticize Mr. Trump’s language, signaled that even some of the former president’s boldest Republican critics on Capitol Hill are treading lightly, as he dominates the polls in the Republican presidential race.
Mr. McConnell has spent years trying to steer the party away from Mr. Trump after the riot at the Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, in large part because he views the former president as a political loser. Often when Mr. McConnell criticizes Mr. Trump he does so by saying his behavior would make it hard for him to win another presidential election.
Senate Republicans are also trying to negotiate a deal with the White House, proposing sweeping restrictions on migration in exchange for approving additional military aid to Ukraine and Israel, a top priority for President Biden.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the Senate majority leader, denounced Mr. Trump’s remarks on Tuesday as “despicable” but signaled that Senate Democrats would push forward with negotiations on border restrictions.
“We all know there’s a problem at the border,” Mr. Schumer said. “The president does. Democrats do. And we’re going to try to solve that problem consistent with our principles.”
Other Senate Republicans more delicately admonished Mr. Trump for his remarks, referring to either their own immigrant heritage or the principle that America is a nation of immigrants.
“My grandfather is an immigrant, so that’s not a view I share,” John Thune, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a CNN interview on Monday. He added, “We are a nation of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of laws,” describing illegal immigration as “a runaway train at the Southern border.”
But other Senate Republicans embraced Mr. Trump’s language. Senator Tommy Tuberville, who had defended white supremacists serving in the military before retracting his remarks this year, said that Mr. Trump’s attacks on immigrants did not go far enough.
“I’m mad he wasn’t tougher than that,” Mr. Tuberville told a reporter for The Independent. “When you see what’s happening at the border? We’re being overrun. They’re taking us over.”
Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio said it was “objectively and obviously true” that “illegal immigrants were poisoning the blood of the country.” He also scolded the reporter who asked him about Mr. Trump’s remarks, accusing her of using Mr. Trump’s words to try to “narrow the limits of debate on immigration in this country.”
Representative Nicole Malliotakis, the lone Republican in a House seat in New York City, denied that Mr. Trump’s remarks were referring to immigrants.
“He didn’t say the words ‘immigrants,’ I think he was talking about the Democratic policies,” she said in a CNN interview on Monday. “Look, I know that some are trying to make it seem like Trump is anti-immigrant. The reality is, he was married to immigrants, he has hired immigrants.”