NOEL KING, HOST:
The House of Representatives did what a lot of people expected it to do last night. Four Republicans and one independent joined every Democrat in the House in voting to condemn President Trump's racist tweets from the past weekend. In those tweets, President Trump told four U.S. congresswomen to go back to where they came from. Three were born in the U.S., and all of them are citizens. Joining us on the phone now is a senior member of the House. U.S. Representative Tom Cole is a Republican from Oklahoma. Good morning, sir.
TOM COLE: Hey, good morning to you.
KING: So you were one of the few Republicans who openly criticized the president's comments. Do you think they were racist?
COLE: No, I don't. I think they were inappropriate and offensive. But again, I don't think they were racist.
KING: Why don't you think they were racist?
COLE: Because I simply don't. I don't think...
COLE: I don't think the president is a racist. I think that was one of the reasons why the, I think, very ill-advised resolution broke down essentially along party lines. It overreached. And frankly, you know, it was a partisan setup, as opposed to being a serious and thoughtful discussion about a problem.
KING: When you critiqued the president's comments, what were you critiquing them for in that event?
COLE: Well, first of all, I don't think you ever tell anybody to go back where they're from in America. Almost all of Americans are from someplace else. It's not an appropriate thing. And second, I just thought you don't - you also don't question any - once you're an American citizen, you are an American whether you were born someplace else or not. So I think that implication bothered me a great deal. And I just thought it was an appropriate way to talk to any American, let alone four Americans who had been elected by their fellow Americans to represent them in Congress.
KING: You just don't think it was racist.
COLE: No, I don't.
COLE: And frankly, I also think that if you - you have to remember here, too, there's - we've had colleagues that are routinely called down by presiding officers for using inappropriate language toward the president. We've had people that have said federal workers are running concentration camps. We've had people that have said if you support Israel, you do it for the money. We've had people that have referred to the president with vulgar epithets and said they're going to impeach him. None of those people were subject to resolution. So the double standard here, in terms of accepting comments on your own side of the aisle and criticizing essentially - what, you know, others might think are a similar thing to another is just - you know, it's breathtakingly inappropriate.
KING: But isn't it fair to say those people are not the president of the United States...
COLE: They are members of Congress...
KING: ...Given the standing of his office?
KING: ...And they are subject to the same rules of decorum. So this idea that it's OK for everybody but the president to say something, I don't go with that. Look; I think the rules of behavior and of appropriate language apply equally to everybody.
KING: Congressman, the president will likely hit some type of nerve along these lines again, possibly soon. Are you comfortable with the Republican Party having to come to either defend or decry the president's words again and again?
COLE: I think people have to make their own individual decisions about that. I don't see this as a - the Republican Party doing something. I see it as individual members and elected officials reacting. So would I change the language of the president? I would. But would I change the language of my Democratic colleagues who, again, are routinely called down by the presiding officer on the floor - on the floor, which is actually a place that has a much higher standard of what's acceptable, as the speaker found out yesterday. You know, again, if you're going to do this, you have to be willing to do it to everybody. And I don't spend a lot of time, quite frankly, commenting on what other people say because if you do that, you're not going to be saying anything. You're just going to be commenting on other people's comments. So it's better to keep your head down and do your work.
KING: All right. But when the president makes these remarks, they don't do much to add to his base in a country this diverse. We know that. Is this a losing strategy that he's pursuing when he talks like this?
COLE: Well, we'll find out. You know, a lot of people thought he was pursuing a losing strategy in 2016, and he prevailed. So we'll find out about that. But if you're asking me, would I prefer the language be more traditional and more presidential? I would. And do I think that would be helpful to him politically? I do because I think sometimes this gets in the way of a very good economy, a very good record on deregulation, a very good effort to rebuild the American military. He has a lot that I think he could point to that sometimes this sort of rhetoric distracts from. And I - you know, as an old political guy, I regret that. I'd rather focus on the substance because I think it's a winner for the president.
KING: We talked to former Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen a couple months ago as she left office. She was the first Latina elected to Congress. And she told us if the Republican Party fails to attract more diverse people, it's just going to lose a whole generation. Let me play you what she said.
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ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We need to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country. And we have not been attuned to that. We've been appealing to one certain section of America.
KING: Is she right, Congressman?
COLE: I think she makes a very good. And certainly, the point about appealing to diverse groups is absolutely critical in America. Frankly, it always has been, but it's even more so today. And, you know, again, I don't think that was certainly proved with (ph) President Bush or many of our members. So - but the point is is an important point for Republicans to think about. And unfortunately (ph) there are conservatives in every racial or ethnic group in America, but you've got to welcome them and you've got to bring them in. And you've got to, you know, show them that their values are your values. So when you fail to do that, yeah, you pay a political price for it and appropriately so.
KING: Representative Tom Cole, Republican from Oklahoma, thanks so much. Tim Mak covers Congress for NPR. He's in studio with me. Tim, what stood out to you from that conversation?
TIM MAK, BYLINE: What the congressman seemed to suggest that Democrats, on a routine basis, make equally offensive comments as the president did over the weekend. I think Democrats would say that that misses the whole point of what was so uniquely offensive about what the president said. Democrats don't typically - I'm not aware of any Democrats having told the president to go back to where he came from. And that's because people with the president's racial background don't get told things like that. That's the very nature of why this these comments were racist over the weekend. And I think that's what Democrats would say.
KING: Are leaders in both parties comfortable with the outcome of last night's vote? Is this going to move anywhere?
MAK: Yeah. Republican leaders in the house were very quick to say that they did not think that the president was racist or that his comments were racist. And they were, as you could tell by the results of the vote yesterday, unified against the Democratic resolution.
KING: NPR's Tim Mak covers Capitol Hill. Tim, thanks so much.
MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.