Leading Republicans united Tuesday in an extraordinary denunciation of Donald Trump's attacks on a federal judge, with House Speaker Paul Ryan calling them the "textbook definition of a racist comment." Yet Ryan stood by his endorsement of the presumptive presidential nominee.
Trump asserted that his comments were being "misconstrued" but did not back down or apologize for saying repeatedly that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside fairly over a case involving Trump University because of the judge's Mexican heritage.
"I do not feel that one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial, but, based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial," Trump said Tuesday in a lengthy statement. He also renewed his insistence that students at the school, far from being fleeced as some of them and authorities in New York and California contend, were overwhelmingly satisfied.
Trump ended his statement by vowing not to discuss the case further, and Tuesday night he stuck to the script as he addressed supporters at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, north of New York City.
Breaking from his usual off-the-cuff style, Trump delivered a measured speech, aided by a teleprompter, calling for unity while confining his criticism to presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
"I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle, and I will never ever let you down," Trump said.
He also made an appeal to supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying, "We welcome you with open arms."
Trump's change in tone came after a day in which a GOP senator who had previously indicated support for him withdrew his backing and Republicans attempts to unite behind Trump looked at risk of unraveling.
"While I oppose the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump's latest statements, in context with past attacks on Hispanics, women and the disabled like me, make it certain that I cannot and will not support my party's nominee for president regardless of the political impact on my candidacy or the Republican Party," Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is in a competitive re-election race, said in a statement. Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 and often uses a wheelchair.
Kirk was the first leading Republican to publicly disavow earlier support for Trump. Most others, including Ryan, reaffirmed their plans to support him. But the situation exposed the peril for Republicans forced to answer for Trump's latest divisive comment, distracting from their own agendas as well as their goals of winning back the White House and hanging onto Senate control.
On Tuesday, Republicans were squirming over what might have been the billionaire's most incendiary stance to date — the claim that Curiel couldn't preside fairly over the Trump University case because the U.S.-born judge is of Mexican heritage and Trump wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
"I regret those comments he made. Claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment," Ryan said. "I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It's absolutely unacceptable."
"But do I believe Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not," Ryan said.
Others avoided the word "racist" but made their disapproval clear.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that "it's time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message."
Ron Weiser, one of the recently named top fundraisers for Trump and the Republican Party, said the nominee's comments on the judge are "obviously making it more difficult" to raise money.
Stanley Hubbard, a Minnesota broadcast company billionaire, recently gave $100,000 to a pro-Trump group and describes himself as a reluctant Trump backer. He said of Trump's judge comments: "It's ridiculous. He's out of line. You don't attack a federal judge, and you certainly don't attack him on the heritage of his parents."
Only his fear of Clinton picking Supreme Court justices is enough to keep him giving money to Trump, Hubbard said.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican senator, called Trump's comments on the judge "racially toxic" yet said, "He needs to get on to the general election and we need to win."
"Let's face it, meet the old Trump, just like the new Trump," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has long opposed the billionaire's candidacy. "We've got what we've got. That's not somebody who can win the White House."
Democrats ridiculed Republicans for denouncing Trump's comments yet continuing to back him, evidence of how much ammunition Trump is giving them as they try to boost their own flawed presumptive nominee in Clinton.
"If Republicans believe that a man who believes in religious and ethnic tests for federal judges is fit to be president of the United States, they must explain why this is an acceptable position," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.