BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — The White House said that President Donald Trump was “just riffing” when he took a swipe at the late Rep. John Dingell during a raucous impeachment-day rally, drawing a quick rebuke from the longtime Michigan congressman’s widow and successor in the House.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that she did not know why Trump decided to suggest that Dingell was in hell. “You’d have to talk to the president about that,” she said.
But Grisham added that Trump is a “counter-puncher,” and suggested Trump was venting his frustration after being impeached by the House. “It was a very very supportive and wild crowd and he was just riffing on some of the things that had been happening the past few days.”
Trump told the Battle Creek rally that Debbie Dingell had thanked him profusely for providing “A-plus treatment” after her husband’s death in February, including ordering flags flown at half-staff.
He quoted her as saying, “Thank you so much. John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down.”
Then he added: “I said, ‘That’s OK. Don’t worry about it.’ Maybe he’s looking up. I don’t know.”
The remark drew wary oohs and aahs from the crowd in Michigan, where John Dingell was a powerful advocate for the state he represented for more than 59 years. The comment came shortly after Debbie Dingell voted in favor of two articles of impeachment against the president.
Trump then offered: “But let’s assume he’s looking down.”
Debbie Dingell tweeted her response, telling Trump: “Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
John Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history
His widow wasn’t the only one upset by the president’s comment.
Republican congressman Fred Upton of Michigan, who voted against impeaching Trump, tweeted: “I’ve always looked up to John Dingell – my good friend and a great Michigan legend. There was no need to ‘dis’ him in a crass political way. Most unfortunate and an apology is due.”
Grisham insisted that the White House respects the Dingell’s family’s public service, but noted she hadn’t discussed the incident with the president.
“I am very very sorry for her loss,” she added.