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Chris Collins, Tom Reed: defending Trump in the toughest of times

WASHINGTON — If a true friend picks you up when you're down, then President Trump can claim two very good friends in Reps. Chris Collins and Tom Reed.

Time and again in the first year of the tumultuous Trump presidency, he has said or done something that previous presidents have not said or done — like using a vulgarity to refer to some countries in Africa, or boasting of the size of his nuclear button, or issuing an executive order on immigration that caused chaos at the nation's airports.

Each time, Collins and Reed — Republicans from Western New York — have shied away from directly criticizing their party's leader.

Check what the two local lawmakers had to say about Trump's reference to the African countries.

"All I know is this is a president who is not a racist, who cares about the young people who are here now, who have lived here most of their lives," Collins told CNN's Chris Cuomo earlier this week in a discussion of young immigrants brought to America illegally by their parents. "He will be generous and compassionate with them, but he needs what he needs on the (border) wall, on border security. That's a reasonable compromise."

And Reed, when asked about Trump's comment, said: "I don't know exactly what was said, and I'll let the people in the White House as well as in the meeting to address that commentary. But in regards to the language itself, obviously, I disagree with that language."

Collins and Reed have been similarly careful in nearly all of their comments on Trump in the past year. A review of news clips from that time period, along with tweets and news releases from the two local GOP congressmen, seldom revealed a discouraging word.

Yet the two lawmakers take distinctly different approaches to commenting on the contentious commander-in-chief.

Collins, like the president a businessman before entering politics, seems to relish his role as a Trump supporter.

Amid the storm over Trump's most recent remarks on the African countries, Collins saved his harshest words for Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who spoke out about Trump's comment, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who privately confirmed Trump's use of that term to colleagues.

"It's political," Collins told CNN host Chris Cuomo. "When you have a private meeting and somebody like Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham at the end of the meeting can't wait to grab a microphone, shame on them for that."

And when Collins mentions Trump on Twitter, it's always in ways that would likely bring a smile to the president's lips.

"ICYMI: Over 100 companies giving 'Trump Bonuses' after tax victory, 'tsunami building,' " Collins tweeted Jan. 10.

Of course, Collins' praise of Trump is nothing new. Collins was the first House member to endorse the billionaire for president nearly two years ago, and ever since, he's served as one of the president's most televised supporters.

To hear Collins spokeswoman Sarah Minkel tell it, Collins backs Trump for some obvious reasons.

"As we approach President Trump’s first year in office, we have seen explosive economic growth, the repeal of hundreds of job-killing regulations, and a new tax code that will lower taxes for families and bring jobs and profits back from overseas," Minkel said. "It is a sad reality that a biased media and never-ending partisan attacks are nothing more than attempts to continue to contest the 2016 presidential election instead of providing the president credit where credit is due."

Collins has disagreed with Trump from time to time. He pressed Trump to back down when the president called for biometric scans at the northern border and stood strong against Trump's proposed budget cuts to home heating aid, Great Lakes funding and other programs that are especially important to Western New York.

But when Trump says or does something that results in a kerfuffle, Collins usually either defends the president — as he did when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and when the president issued his immigration order — or stays silent, as he did when Trump boasted of the size of his nuclear button.

Reed, a Corning lawmaker who represents the Southern Tier, has also disagreed with Trump from time to time, on funding for the Great Lakes, Community Development Block Grants, the Appalachian Regional Commission and other issues.

Yet when discussing Trump, Reed appears to watch his words.

Asked if Trump's comment about the African countries indicated that Trump is a racist, Reed said: "I'm not going to respond to that question. I do not believe that in my interactions with the president, my firsthand accounts with him, I see no evidence of that. And how that conversation went down, how that was interpreted, I'm going to defer to other people."

Reed rarely mentions Trump on Twitter, instead lauding his policies, such as the recent GOP tax overhaul.

On Reed's weekly conference call with reporters, though, journalists routinely ask him about the latest Trump controversy. Typically Reed expresses a moderate level of displeasure and says he will report it privately to the powers that be.

"I will express my frustration in the appropriate venues, to the appropriate people," he said this week.

Reed won't dwell on that frustration, either.

"I always try to put that frustration aside and look at the big picture, at what we are doing to help Americans with this new administration," he said.

So why do Collins and Reed — and most Republicans in Congress — talk this way about about Trump?

To hear Democrats tell it, it's as if they are sheep, following their shepherd.

“It must be hard work defending every one of President Trump’s dangerous and erratic statements, but Congressmen Reed and Collins make it look easy," said Evan Lukaske, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "If Reed and Collins ever stop making excuses for Trump, maybe they can start the serious work of finding their spines.”

But James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, said Collins and Reed may just be doing what's most practical.

"Certainly this could be just simply defending the leadership of the party," said Campbell, a Republican.

And the lawmakers may refrain from commenting on some of Trump's self-engineered controversies — like the North Korea tweet — because there is no need to do so.

"Probably they think a lot of it is just silliness, so they just write it off," Campbell said.

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