BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. – A day that could have been another victory lap for Donald Trump veered into more chaos for the new Republican standard-bearer, as he faced unprecedented fury from top party leaders Tuesday and defections from a GOP senator over his racially charged comments calling into question the impartiality of a federal judge because he is of Mexican descent.
The day’s developments were perhaps the clearest sign yet that Trump’s formula of using controversy to fuel his primary campaign presents a stiffer challenge to him and his party in the general election.
After unusually harsh criticism from House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell early Tuesday, Trump tried to contain the mess, insisting in a statement that his comments about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing a lawsuit against the Trump University real estate course, had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage.”
Yet Trump’s statement was hardly conciliatory. Nor did it seem likely to quell the discord.
“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 in a statement that included testimonials praising Trump University.
Trump had questioned Curiel’s impartiality based on his ethnicity several times in recent days, and implored his top supporters to keep up the attack, despite pleas from his own advisers to retreat.
He told The Wall Street Journal, for example, that the Indiana-born Curiel’s heritage is “an absolute conflict.”
“I’m building a wall,” Trump added. “It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”
Trump’s attempt to finally end the controversy followed a days-long onslaught of criticism from fellow Republicans, who condemned the remarks about the judge and rushed to distance themselves from the broader backlash against them. Yet most were unwilling to rescind their endorsement of Trump, given the support he still retains among Republican voters.
The party was in full panic Tuesday over how to deal with a candidate who appeared uninterested in the advice of party leaders and some in his own campaign.
Ryan, who endorsed Trump only last week, called the businessman’s remarks “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
It was a striking and historic rebuke – the country’s top Republican leader accusing its presidential nominee of racism.
Just as stunning, McConnell, R-Ky., piled on, urging Trump to “start talking about the issues the American people care about. . Quit attacking the various people that you competed with and various minority groups, and get on message.”
Republicans openly feared Trump was risking the party’s electoral chances in down-ticket races, particularly in the Senate. Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican facing a tough re-election, announced he would not support Trump for president.
“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,” Kirk said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has worked to nudge Trump to better behavior. “I hope this isn’t the pattern that’s going to occur between now and November,” said Corker, who only days ago was the subject of speculation that he would be Trump’s running mate. If these flare-ups continue, he said, “it’s very problematic.”
Trump was to speak during prime time at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester here, north of New York City, after his expected victories in Tuesday night’s primaries.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a top Trump supporter, tried his best defense Tuesday as he cast his vote in his state’s primary.
“I know Donald Trump. I’ve known him for 14 years. And Donald Trump is not a racist,” Christie said.
Another top Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, sounded a similar plea for leniency, saying a person as new to politics as Trump will say “stupid” and “outrageous” things.
“Be nice to him,” said Hatch. “He’s a poor first-time candidate.”
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