WASHINGTON — It made for a striking contrast — and one that is giving Republicans more cause to worry about their chances in November.
As Hillary Clinton made history Tuesday by claiming the title of presumptive nominee in the Democratic presidential contest, prominent Republicans denounced their own nominee and publicly debated whether he harbors racist views.
Donald Trump, who previously had shown a masterly ability to deflect controversies that would have sunk most candidates, has struggled to move beyond condemnations of his racially tainted comments about the federal judge who is hearing a civil fraud case against Trump University.
Top Republicans in Congress openly challenged his remarks Tuesday. Conservatives, moderates, and evangelicals alike backed away from him. And Trump continued to display combativeness when reconciliation and contrition might have been wiser choices.
So much for party unity.
The spectacle swirling around Trump on Tuesday continued just as the more disciplined and organized Clinton appeared to be finally consolidating strength for the general election ahead.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, less than a week after he reluctantly endorsed Trump’s campaign, faced questions about Trump’s repeated, unsubstantiated assertions that Judge Gonzalo Curiel, born in Indiana and of Mexican descent, was biased against Trump because of Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border.
“Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday, setting the tone of a day of blistering criticism.
In a maneuver that symbolized how the broader Republican Party is trying to accommodate Trump and his outspoken views on Mexicans, Muslims, and women, Ryan later told Fox News that while Trump’s comments were racist, he does not consider Trump racist. And he would still vote for him.
In the Senate, majority leader Mitch McConnell offered his own stern advice for Trump: “My advice to our nominee would be to start talking about the issues that the American people care about — and to start doing it now.”
“It’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message,” he added. “We’re all anxious to see what he may say next.”
Several hours later, Trump released a 701-word statement in which he expressed a desire to move on from the current flap, even while refusing to back down.
“It is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage,” read the statement. “I am friends with and employ thousands of people of Mexican and Hispanic descent. The American justice system relies on fair and impartial judges. All judges should be held to that standard.”
“I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial,” he continued. “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 added that, “I do not intend to comment on this matter any further.”
Tuesday night, during remarks on at Trump National Golf Club Westchester in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Trump never referred to his controversial remarks and instead tried to put more polish on his demeanor.
“People say I’m too much of a fighter. My preference is peace, however,” he said. “I’m not a politician fighting. I’m me. You’re gonna see some real good things happen.”
His remarks — read from a teleprompter, in a sign that he may be trying to become more disciplined — highlighted his desire to bounce back from the worst stretch of his campaign.
“I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle, and I will never, ever let you down,” he said. “I will make you proud of your party and our movement, and that’s what it is, a movement.”
With Clinton mired in her primary fight against Bernie Sanders, Trump defeated the last of his opponents weeks ago and had a 34-day headstart on the job of unifying his party. Initially, Trump had some success, earning key endorsements after a Capitol Hill charm-fest. He established a joint fund-raising agreement with the Republican National Committee and began adding key staff.
But the benefits of that headstart evaporated in the last week.
One of his greatest strengths — his outsider’s refusal to adapt to the norms of political campaigning — is also a liability. And anyone expecting Trump to fundamentally change his ways may be disappointed: Trump, after all, wrote in his 1987 book that he punched his second-grade music teacher because he didn’t think the teacher knew enough about music.
Many Republicans are now running away from their nominee, rather than embracing him. Senator Marco Rubio said Tuesday that if he speaks at the GOP convention in July, he will not be speaking on Trump’s behalf. And he may not speak at all. Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said Tuesday that he was revoking his support for Trump.
One of Trump’s former rivals, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said he could not vote for him, either. He withdrew his earlier endorsement and called on other Republicans to do the same. He also accused Trump of “playing the race card.”
“If he continues this line of attack then I think people really need to reconsider the future of the party,” Graham said on CNN.
Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator who has tried unsuccessfully to recruit an anti-Trump candidate to run, appeared to mock his fellow Republicans on Twitter: “Official position of the leadership of the Republican Party: Trump is an inexcusable bigot, and Trump must be our next president.”
Some of Trump’s allies fought back. One Trump supporter — CNN contributor Jeffrey Lord — said that Ryan, the House speaker, was the one who “is now supporting identity politics, which is racist.” Another pointed fingers at the White House.
“You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric,” Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, said on CNN.
Trump on Tuesday night also began turning toward Clinton, attacking her over her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state and saying, without evidence, that she had kept them private them in order to hide her “corrupt dealings.”
“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves,” he said.
He then said he planned to give a speech focused on the Clintons next week.
“I wonder if the press will want to attend?” he wondered aloud.
Results from Tuesday’s primaries: