The White House on Thursday said President Trump was “just riffing” when he suggested at a Michigan rally that Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell’s late husband, Rep. John Dingell, was in hell, “looking up.”
“It was a very, very supportive and wild crowd,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “And he was just riffing on some of the things that had been happening the past few days.”
Grisham described Trump as a “counter-puncher.” During his campaign and since taking office, Trump has made many inflammatory statements that he or his press secretaries explained away as jokes.
John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, died in February at age 92.
Rep. John Dingell through the years
Rep. John Dingell through the years
UNITED STATES - MARCH 31: PATIENTS BILL OF RIGHTS--John D. Dingell,D-Mich., during House and Senate Democrats press conference to introduce the managed care bill. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 01: Rep. John Dingell at International Investors Conference. (Photo by Karl Schumacher/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
3/15/1983- Washington, DC: Closeup at press conference of Congressman John Dingell.
FILE - In this June 2, 1977 file photo, President Jimmy Carter hosts a breakfast in the Family Dining Room of the White House in Washington for House Subcommittee members on Energy and Power. From left are Rep. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), President Carter, Rep. Harley Staggers (D-W Va.), Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.), and Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.). Fifty seven years ago, Rep. John Dingell, who this week becomes the longest serving member of Congress in history, nearly began his career in tears on the floor of the House. Members were delivering tributes to his father, John Dingell Sr., who had died recently. (AP Photo/Charles Harrity, File)
Congressman John Dingell in camouflage during geese hunting expedition. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett/Woodfin Camp/Woodfin Camp/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Washington, DC: President Reagan reaches for a pen to sign legislation, January 6, to bail out the farm credit system, providing the first federal aid to the nation's largest agriculture lender since the Great Depression. Behind Reagan, pushing in his chair for him are, from left, Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat - Vermont); Representative John Dingell (Democrat - Michigan); and Representative James Jeffords (Republican - Vermont.)
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., comments on President Jimmy Carter during an interview in his Capitol Hill office on June 12, 1979. Carter arrived in Washington as an outsider and remains an outsider to Washington politics. Dingell is nevertheless a supporter of the president. (AP Photo/John Duricka)
House Energy Comm. Chmn. Rep. John Dingell (Dem-MI) in his Capitol Hill office. (Photo by Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 28: PROFILE:John D. Dingell,D-Mich.,in his office at Rayburn House Office Building. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Rep. John David Dingell, D-Mich., House of Representatives Member, having a front row seat during panel discussion on the first day of the Democratic Party retreat. March 8, 1991 (Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 11: TELELCOMMUNICATIONS PROVISIONS--During his opening statement, ranking member John Dingell, D-Mich., right, jokes with Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., during full Commerce Committee markup of FY98 budget provision dealing with spectrum sales. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., is in foreground. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 19: PATIENTS' RIGHTS--John D. Dingell, D-Mich., Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., middle, and Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, during a news conference on the Senate patients' rights bill. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 06: Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., House Energy and Commerce ranking Democrat John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and House Ways and Means ranking Democrat Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., during a news conference on the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, which was created by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2003 and is now being implemented. Seniors have until May 15 to sign up for a Medicare prescription drug plan without being charged a penalty. Democrats say the deadline should be extended to allow seniors, as Capps put it, to 'navigate this complicated maze of rules and regulations' fraught with 'mixed messages and mass confusion.' Dingell was a member of the House in 1965 when Congress launched the Medicare health care program for the elderly and disabled. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (L)(D-CA) is given a box of paczki, a traditional pastry commonly eaten on Fat Tuesday, from the Chene Modern Bakery in Detroit from Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (R)(D-MI) on Feburary 5, 2007 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 28: Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and his wife Debbie Dingell, attend the Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Honoring the Promise benefit at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on October 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - JULY 29: Former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., wields the gavel he used when he presided over the vote to pass Medicare in 1965 during the House Democrats' event to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
“Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty,” Trump said, noting he was watching her on television during the impeachment proceedings.
The president said he gave the Dingell family the “A-plus treatment” after John Dingell’s death, falsely claiming he allowed him to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Trump then depicted an emotional phone call with Debbie Dingell, with her thanking him for his consideration and telling him that her husband was “thrilled” looking down from heaven.
“Maybe he’s looking up,” Trump said, drawing some moans from the crowd in Michigan, a state Dingell represented for more than 59 years, although his district was in another part of the state.
“Mr. President, let’s set politics aside,” she tweeted. “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.”
In an interview with CNN, she maintained her above-the-fray stance.
“I’ve never taken a personal shot at this president. I think his family is off limits,” Debbie Dingell said.
She said John Dingell’s brother, her brother-in-law, is currently in hospice care.
“We need more civility in this country,” the congresswoman continued. “The rhetoric, the bullying, the viciousness isn’t OK. And there are too many people across the country that are beginning to think it is OK.”
Dingell’s Republican colleague, Rep. Fred Upton, was quick to criticize Trump’s remark and called on the president to apologize.
“I’ve always looked up to John Dingell,” Upton tweeted. “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.”
When asked if she wanted an apology from the president, Debbie Dingell demurred.
“I don’t want to politicize my husband,” she said. “I don’t want to politicize my husband’s death. It is still something that I am really grieving over. This Thanksgiving was really hard and Christmas is harder.”