National Journal

Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers are under pressure to get rid of campaign donations from Earl Holt, the leader of the white-nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens.

Holt and his group are under new scrutiny after a site thought to belong to Dylann Roof—the accused shooter in the murder of eight people at a historically-black church in Charleston, South Carolina—claimed that the council had in part inspired his actions in Charleston.

In the day since The Guardian broke the news that Holt donated more than $60,000 to Republicans, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, the officials have been grappling with how to quickly distance themselves from the money.

Cruz's presidential campaign and political action committee jointly got more than $8,000 from Holt, and said both would send the money back. How much Holt donated to Paul's campaign is unclear: The New York Times reported that Paul's campaigns apparently received $2,250 from Holt, while The Guardian reported that Holt gave $1,750 to Paul's PAC. Whatever the exact total, Paul's campaign said Monday that it will donate the money to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund, a collection that goes directly to the families of the shooting victims.

Until this recent wave, Holt's donations had gone undetected, even though his group has long had financial ties on Capitol Hill—and has a long history of controversy. Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott and Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr were the subject of controversy in the late 1990s when it was discovered that they gave speeches to the Council of Conservative Citizens. The then-chairman of the Republican National Committee had urged all politicians to stop associating with the group.

Nearly two decades later, congressional members who've received Holt's money are weighing what to do with it. Holt has given thousands to a wide range of the hill's most notable conservative voices including Sens. Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake, Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Louie Gohmert of Texas, and even Rep. Mia Love, the GOP's first black congresswoman.

After being contacted by CNN, Love's office announced the congresswoman would be sending back the $1,000 she got from Holt. Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who received $1,500 in donations from Holt, tweeted: "I have returned Mr. Holt's donation because I do not agree with his hateful beliefs and language and believe they are hurtful to our country."

Sen. Thom Tillis's office told National Journal that the senator would not be returning the money, but instead would donate it to the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund. As of press time, it was still unclear what several more offices planned to do.

Sasse also plans to donate his money to charity. 

"The Senator strongly condemns Mr. Holt's racist views. As soon as he found out about Holt's background, he directed the campaign to give the donation to the Agape Community Center of Chicago where Senator Sasse and his wife have been volunteers," says Tyler Grassmeyer, Sasse's deputy chief of staff.

The Council of Conservative Citizens had its roots as a segregationist group. It opposes the entry of nonwhite individuals into the U.S., and in its statement of principles, the group states that the "United States is a Christian country," and that the "United States is a European Country" where "American people and government should remain European in composition and character."

The group's statement also says: "We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called 'affirmative action' and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races."

Roof apparently relied on the Council of Conservative Citizens' website to learn about what he called "black on White crime." According to a statement that has been attributed to him and is thought to be on his own site, Roof said "there were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?"

This story has been updated

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