WASHINGTON – There must be 50 ways to leave your leader.
Some slip out the back.
“In this election, I do not support either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.).
Some are making new plans.
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“I cannot support Donald Trump,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), calling for a third-party choice.
A few are being coy.
“Conventions have never been very appealing to me,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), explaining why he would miss this summer’s.
Others on this bus won’t discuss much.
“I’m not going to take any more stupid questions about Donald Trump,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, explaining that he was not endorsing any candidate.
The rest drop off the key – “I don’t think he has the temperament or judgment to be commander in chief,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) – and get themselves free.
There is a mass displeasure with Trump among elected Republican officials. But each seems to have a different way of expressing the disdain. A few are overtly hostile to Trump and categorical in their refusal to support the demagogue, including Reps. Bob Dold (Ill.), Scott Rigell (Va.), Richard Hanna (N.Y.) and Justin Amash (Mich.). But most are painstakingly nuanced, trying to keep their distance from Trump without antagonizing his supporters.
There are those who say they aren’t “yet” supporting Trump, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), who is “not there yet,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), who says Trump hasn’t earned her vote “at this time,” and Rep. Ann Wagner (Mo.), who says she’s not for Trump “thus far.”
Some feign deliberation. “I would like to ask him questions about some of the statements he’s made,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), a House GOP leader.
A few are dissing Trump by omission. Both former presidents Bush said they won’t attend the convention, nor support Trump, though they supported past Republican nominees. But Jeb Bush (like 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney) is more high-energy on this point: “I will not vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” he says.
Probably the most delicate in their Trump distancing are the most vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election in November. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) is a profile in parsing. “Kelly plans to support the nominee,” a spokeswoman explained. But she “isn’t planning to endorse anyone this cycle.”
Sen. John McCain won’t go to the Cleveland convention, but he told CNN’s Manu Raju that he could support Trump. Still, he won’t share a stage with Trump unless “a lot of things” happen – including a retraction of Trump’s statement disparaging American prisoners of war.
Sen. Rob Portman, who is vulnerable in Ohio, has an additional problem: He can’t really skip the convention, because it’s in his home state. Instead, he’s planning to have a “mini-convention” with his supporters somewhere in Cleveland.
Sen. Richard Burr, potentially in trouble in North Carolina, told a crowd that “having our preferences is no longer an option” and that the nominee is going to be Trump. So will he campaign with Trump? “I’m going to be focused on my own re-election,” he told the Raleigh News & Observer.
In Illinois, Sen. Mark Kirk had said he would support Trump if he were the nominee but now says Trump is a “riverboat gamble” and pronounces himself “probably the best-positioned Republican to weather the institution of Trumpism.”
The website TPM is keeping a running tally of where elected Republicans stand on Trump: 11 who have endorsed Trump (including Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie); 23 who are “supporting the nominee” with varying levels of discomfort (including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California); five who refuse to say (including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder); five “NeverTrump” types (including Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada); and eight “fuzzballs” trying not to commit (including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania).
But TPM is surely low-balling the number of fuzzballs. The Chicago Tribune reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner won’t “formally endorse” Trump (he’s apparently open to supporting Trump casually). Rep. John Katko (N.Y.) declares himself “concerned” about Trump, while Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.) says Trump “has a great deal of work to do to convince many Americans, myself included.”
By comparison, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) is refreshingly clear. “I will not support Mr. Trump,” he told the CBS Miami affiliate. “That is not a political decision; that is a moral decision.”
There. Was that so hard?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.