Ultimately, it was left to Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat, to deliver the verdict of Thomas J. Wickham Jr., the House parliamentarian since 2012. Pelosi’s remarks, he determined, were “not in order” and should not be used.

Precedent, not a rule

But that was just the beginning of the battle.

Jefferson’s manual deems that it is out of order “to speak irreverently or seditiously against the King,” Josh Chafetz, a Georgetown law professor, noted on Twitter as the fracas was happening. But that doesn’t mean there are actual “rules” against calling the president a racist. 


“Should the Democrats believe that the precedents holding that calling the president a racist is out of order are themselves out of date and unwise, they can do away with them today,” Chafetz noted.

And that is essentially what happened. After Collins and other Republicans objected, the House voted to override the parliamentarian’s decision on Pelosi’s remarks, allowing them to finally move forward with a vote to rebuke the president.

The precedents preventing House members from calling the president “racist” cited in the latest version of Jefferson’s manual were nearly all added after Trump was elected. That’s because there have been so many more debates about racism since Trump came into office. These debates in turn led to objections by Republicans, and chair rulings that the word shouldn’t be used.

Pelosi isn’t alone. House members may have referred to the president as a “racist” multiple times on the floor, sometimes without objection. For example, minority members didn’t object when Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat, blasted Trump’s “racist rhetoric” hours before the July 16 vote.

Two versions of decency

Ahead of the final vote on rebuking Trump, Republicans expressed their concern about the deviation from established protocol. “I ask that all members take it upon themselves to uphold the decency of this organization,” House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, the Republican from Texas, said. “I hope we can rise to the occasion.”

Democrats, on the other hand, used the time to express their concern about the direction the United States is headed. “I know racism when I see it. I know racism when I feel it,” said John Lewis, the Georgia Civil Rights veteran. “The world is watching and its shocked and dismayed because we have lost our way as people.”

Hours later than expected, House member finally held a vote to condemn Trump’s racist remarks. It passed 240 to 187. Just four Republicans joined the Democrats.

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