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Washington • Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, a former U.S. Air Force major who is backing Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential race, calls Donald Trump "our Mussolini" but isn't ruling out supporting the business mogul if he becomes the GOP nominee.
"I'm hoping that he's not," Stewart, a Utah Republican, said Thursday. "I'm hoping that Marco Rubio is, and I know that's a harder challenge right now. I haven't really considered if Donald is. It's always been my intention and my wishes to have Marco."
Stewart told a group of University of Utah students at a Hinckley Institute of Politics forum on Wednesday that Trump is "our Mussolini," referring to the 20th century fascist dictator of Italy.
Stewart, who is critical of Trump's comments that he would order the military to attack the families of terrorists, isn't alone in walking the fine line of distancing himself from Trump's fiery and sometimes offensive rhetoric and still holding back from an outright promise not to support the candidate if he should become the GOP's standard bearer.
"I haven't really thought about that, honestly," Stewart said. "I'll wrap my head around that when the time comes, I guess."
The same is true for Rep. Mia Love, also a Rubio backer, who says that's "one of the questions I hate to answer."
"I am doing everything I can to make sure we have a grownup in the room," Love said in an interview. "I'm concerned with the tone that this presidential election has taken. I'm glad Utah isn't drinking the Kool-Aid."
Love wouldn't rule out voting for Trump but is keeping an open mind; she says she'll vote for anyone over Hillary Clinton but can't say now if she would stand behind Trump.
"What if he does something, makes it morally or [on principle] impossible to vote for him?" Love said. "You never know what's going to come out, what's going to happen."
Rep. Rob Bishop, also a Rubio fan, simply declined to answer the Trump-as-nominee question.
"You know, it is nice weather out here in Utah today," Bishop said by phone.
Stewart, who flew jets in the Air Force, said he was offended by Trump's comments that he would use deadly force on relatives of ISIS, the terrorist group claiming parts of Syria and Iraq.
"We're fighting a very politically correct war," Trump told Fox and Friends. "And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don't kid yourself. But they say they don't care about their lives. You have to take out their families."
Stewart said it was even more outlandish when Trump doubled down.
"Then he came back and defended it saying, 'They'll do it – I'm a leader – if I tell them to do it,'" Stewart said, paraphrasing Trump. "As a former military guy, I find that so offensive, to think that any individual would stand up and say that I will command them to do it because I'm a strong leader. I'm not going to violate the law because Donald Trump tells me to."
Stewart said in a follow-up text message that he is supporting Rubio and, "That's really the only thing I'm focused on right now."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, though, who is also a Rubio supporter and has stumped for the Florida senator, was unequivocal.
"I intend to support the Republican nominee," Chaffetz said.
Even if that's Trump? Chaffetz repeated the line.