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National

Republicans Denounce Donald Trump's Call To Ban Muslim Immigrants

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Un-Republican, unconstitutional and un-American. Those words came from New Hampshire's Republican Party chair in reaction to Donald Trump's call to bar Muslims from entering America. Trump's comments also trouble Matt Moore. He's the chairman of the Republican Party in another early voting state, South Carolina. It's also where Trump is leading in the polls.

MATT MOORE: This is not really about party politics or elections at all. At the core, it's not even about Muslims. It's about what kind of country America strives to be and living up to our highest ideals. That is American exceptionalism, in my opinion. It also includes balancing national security with freedom. And when it comes to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, there's not necessarily a choice between doing nothing and violating civil rights and the Constitution.

CORNISH: As party chair in South Carolina, you are in touch with, kind of, voters in your community and how they're thinking. And you also charge yourself with recruiting more young activists to the Republican Party. How does this kind of rhetoric play with them?

MOORE: The religious conservatives that I speak with in South Carolina agree with me that if we have a central government or federal government or a president that can unilaterally close a mosque, they can also close a synagogue or a church, and that a government or leader who can keep out Muslims can unilaterally keep out Jews and Christians. And what kind of precedent are we setting for a liberal president who's elected maybe in 50 years from now who refuses maybe to allow Methodists and Baptists to enter the country if he or she disagrees with their religion? So these are precedent-setting ideas I think should be rejected.

CORNISH: I think you've made it pretty clear how you feel, but as party chair, you've got to care about what your voters feel. And what is he saying that is animating them?

MOORE: I think what he's saying that's animating them is a willingness to attempt to speak boldly about the issues that face the country. And not all Republicans agree. I think that if you get a lot of people in a room who come to campaign rallies and you poll them, of course they agree. But far and wide, Republicans don't necessarily agree with everything that any candidate says. And so that's really has happened - frustration with how Washington seems to be broken and an unwillingness to address issues in a forceful way. But again, there is a very - in my mind - bright line that should not be crossed.

CORNISH: And if - did this cross it, and if so is that a setback for the party?

MOORE: I think it did. I think it's a setback for the country when we use rhetoric that's so just anti-American, when it comes to respecting the Constitution and (unintelligible) a country that upholds its best values. It is, it's a setback for the country.

CORNISH: Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Republican media strategist Rick Wilson was even more pointed in his criticism. He's done some work for a super PAC supporting Marco Rubio, but Wilson says he's not officially affiliated with any presidential candidate. I asked him about what he thinks he's hearing from his party's candidates and how he thinks they should respond.

RICK WILSON: Republican campaigners at the national level need to step up and be ready to propose serious, substantive, actual counterterrorism strategies rather than the sort of vague and, frankly, probably ineffective idea that Trump has thrown out there - in the usual sort of Trumpian fashion, which is a big explosion, a lot of smoke, a lot of fire, and then there's really nothing there that makes America safer. You're not necessarily going to win over a lot of the Trump supporters who aren't thinking much beyond the satisfaction of Donald Trump's latest rant, but you will be able to talk to folks who are part of that 75 percent of Republicans who haven't yet made up their mind on where they're going to land and who are looking for - legitimately looking for - real answers on our national security and real responses to Islamic terrorism.

CORNISH: But you've also said that serious candidates may think getting in the daily scrum with Trump is a loser's game. Are they not correct? I mean, when you look at the polling of the last couple of months, there hasn't seemed to be a benefit to the candidate who tries to speak directly to him, tries to counter him.

WILSON: Well, we're reaching a point now where there will be a serious Republican candidate who emerges from this field, and they will be a person who is called upon to essentially restore the limited government conservatism that supposedly informs the Republican Party and move it away from this sort of reality TV show that Donald Trump is engaged in.

CORNISH: But why do you believe that? I mean, looking at the reaction today, Trump isn't exactly flagging here.

WILSON: Look, Donald Trump is still, at heart, an entertainer. He is still, at heart, a fundamentally unserious person, unqualified and unprepared to lead this country. There is a percentage inside the Republican Party right now who tend to be voters who are very moved by the very hot, nationalist rhetoric that Trump is using. But is he still showing that he operates in a boundary area of somewhere between 20 and 25 percent in the overall polling averages.

And, listen, at the very beginning of this, I predicted that Trump would fade, like everyone else did, because I thought the candidates would engage him. I thought the candidates would find a way to go after him and engage him in a way that was more serious. Well, between Trump's, you know, ability to motivate a certain fraction of the party, between the media's complicity in boosting him up there and in the candidates' sort of overcautious engagement on this thing, it's been a much longer process than anyone anticipated. I do think, though, we are reaching the point where serious people are looking at this and serious people are focusing on, seeing to it that the field consolidates and that we don't have somebody leading our party who is evidently hostile to basic constitutional principles.

CORNISH: Rick Wilson, Republican media strategist, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILSON: You bet, Audie.

CORNISH: And tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, host Steve Inskeep asks senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz about Trump's comments and about other issues, including the senator's anti-terrorism strategy and his skepticism about climate change. That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.