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Key GOP senators criticize Alito over upside-down flag incident

By Ted Barrett and Michelle Shen, CNN

(CNN) — Key Republican senators sharply criticized Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito after news reports showed an upside-down American flag – a symbol used by some supporters of former President Donald Trump who challenged the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory – flying outside his home in 2021.

Such criticism of a conservative justice from high-ranking GOP senators is extremely rare and a sign of how unusual the controversy is.

In a brief interview with CNN, Senate Republican Whip John Thune, one of the contenders vying to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, called the flag a “bad decision.”

“I don’t know how you explain that,” Thune said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that it was a “mistake” for Alito to have an American flag hanging upside down at his home.

“It creates a bad image,” Graham told CNN’s Manu Raju. “It created a situation that we’re all talking about. So, yeah, I think it was a mistake.”

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney echoed concerns about the flag.

“It’s very unfortunate and we ought to take a look at it,” he said to reporters.

The upside-down flag became a symbol of the “Stop the Steal” movement in the weeks and months following the election, in which Trump’s supporters falsely claimed that Biden’s win was illegitimate due to widespread fraud. The inverted flag was widely seen during the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

The New York Times published a photo of the inverted flag, which it said was seen at the justice’s home in Alexandria, Virginia, on January 17, 2021.

“I had no involvement whatsoever in the flying of the flag,” Alito said in an emailed statement to the Times. “It was briefly placed by Mrs. Alito in response to a neighbor’s use of objectionable and personally insulting language on yard signs.”

Many Republicans who spoke to CNN, however, defended Alito or downplayed the matter. Even some who questioned his judgment over the incident still defended his role on the court.

“There’s always accusations made about, you know, members of this court, and the left has tried very hard to discredit them,” Thune said. “This is a court that’s looking at the law in the Constitution and interpreting it as they should.”

“I don’t think he should be recused,” Graham told Raju.

Many Republicans vehemently argued against calls for Alito to recuse himself from Trump- and election-related cases.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee who is running to be GOP leader, said, “there are more important things to worry about.”

Cornyn described the focus on the upside -down flag as “continued harassment” against Alito.

“Ever since Clarence Thomas experienced what he called the high-tech lynching, I think we’ve seen repeated efforts to try to undermine the credibility of the Supreme Court. And this is just the latest episode,” Cornyn added.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, said news of the flag is the “latest attempt by the left to attack and question the Supreme Court.” He said calls by Democrats for Alito to recuse himself from some cases involving Trump is “an idiotic thing to think that has nothing to do with what’s going on.”

GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said, “This is America and Mrs. Alito is entitled to her opinion, but I don’t see any proof whatsoever that Justice Alito had anything to do with it.”

Kennedy also weighed in on the role and obligations of Supreme Court spouses.

“Should they be discreet and judicious in the way they articulate their point of view?  Sure.  But they don’t have to be,” Kennedy said.

Another GOP senator seemed to downplay the issue as a dispute between neighbors.

“It sounded like some kind of neighborhood thing. I don’t really have a comment on it,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia.

CNN’s John Fritze, Lauren Fox, Morgan Rimmer and Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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