BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — The White House said Thursday that President Donald Trump was “just riffing” when he took a swipe at the late Rep. John Dingell during a raucous impeachment-day rally. Trump’s targeting of the longtime Michigan Democrat drew a swift rebuke from his widow, who has succeeded her husband in the House.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told 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 “counterpuncher” and she suggested that the president was venting his frustration Thursday night in Battle Creek 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,” his spokeswoman said.
Trump said at the rally that Debbie Dingell had thanked him profusely for providing “A-plus treatment” after John Dingell’s death in February, including ordering flags flown at half-staff.
He quoted Debbie Dingell as saying at that time, “Thank you so much. John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down.”
Then, Trump told his audience in Michigan, “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. John Dingell was a powerful advocate for the swing state he represented for more than 59 years. he was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history.
Trump then said: “But let’s assume he’s looking down.”
Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016, and his campaign is betting on a repeat in the state to assure a 2020 victory.
His comment came shortly after Debbie Dingell voted in favor of two articles of impeachment against the president.
Debbie Dingell addressed Trump in a tweet: “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.”
She wasn’t the only one upset by the president’s remark.
GOP Rep. 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. She said she hadn’t discussed the matter with the president.
“I am very very sorry for her loss,” she added.