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Trump Says Comments About Judge 'Have Been Misconstrued'

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on June 2 in San Jose, Calif.
Elijah Nouvelage
Getty Images
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on June 2 in San Jose, Calif.

After days of digging in on his racially charged criticism of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Donald Trump appears to have changed his tune.

The presumptive Republican nominee released a statement late Tuesday afternoon that seemed to back away somewhat from his earlier statements saying the judge, who is overseeing a case against the now-defunct Trump University, cannot be fair because of his Mexican heritage and Trump's calls for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"It is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage," Trump said. "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."

The lengthy statement went on to defend the practices of Trump University and defend questioning Curiel's fairness based on his actions in the trial and his association with an association of Latino lawyers in California with a name similar to a liberal pro-immigrant rights group.

"I do not intend to comment on this matter any further," Trump said.

That statement came after a day of sharp criticism of the candidate's rhetoric from the top levels of GOP leadership.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, the highest ranking Republican in government, disavowed Trump's earlier comments.

"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 at an event where he unveiled the GOP agenda to fight poverty in America. "I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It's absolutely unacceptable."

Ryan stood by his endorsement of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, which came last week.

"But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No I do not," Ryan added. "I believe that we have more common ground on the policy issues of the day and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell implored Trump to change his tune earlier Tuesday afternoon. "It's time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message," McConnell said. He also suggested that Trump start criticizing Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, over the state of the economy, health care and other issues.

In interviews over the weekend, Trump had doubled down on his claim that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana, should not preside over the Trump University fraud case because of his Mexican heritage. Trump also said he thought it was "absolutely" possible that a Muslim judge also would treat him unfairly. On Friday, Trump referred to a supporter in the crowd at a rally in Redding, Calif., as "my African-American," sparking criticism.

A senior campaign source confirms to NPR that Trump urged surrogates on a conference call on Monday to keep responding to questions about the controversy, reversing a memo that a campaign staffer had sent to many of them earlier directing those speaking for the campaign to avoid discussing the lawsuit.

The purpose of Trump's call was to give surrogates the "confidence to keep standing up," according to the campaign source, who added that Trump believes "if we don't respond we can't win."

Among those on the 50-minute call were former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Trump backer Jeffrey Lord, who frequently speaks in support of the candidate on CNN.

Trump also urged his supporters to go after reporters they feel are unfair.

GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who's often talked about as a possible running mate, urged Trump to change course multiple times in an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Tuesday. "He has, no doubt, missed an incredible opportunity. He still has time to pivot," Corker said. "Time is running short, but he has time to do that."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among several former rivals who pledged months ago to support the party's nominee. Rubio told a local news station in Florida that he saw that promise as a "binding agreement," but said he couldn't defend Trump's remarks about Judge Curiel.

"I think it's wrong. He needs to stop saying it," Rubio said. "I don't think it reflects well on the Republican Party. I don't think it reflects well on us as a nation. There shouldn't be any sort of ethnicity or religious or racial test for what kinds of judges should hear what kinds of cases. If you take that argument and you expand, it you can make that argument about anybody in some circumstance or another. It's wrong and I hope he stops."

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told The New York Times that Trump's comments represent an "off-ramp" for leery Trump supporters and compared his rhetoric to that of Sen. Joe McCarthy. "There'll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary," Graham added.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told NBC that it's "obviously inappropriate to attack a judge's race or ethnicity." On Twitter, Ohio Gov. John Kasich called Trump's comments "wrong" and said he should "apologize" to Curiel.

On Sunday, McConnell declined to say whether the comments were racist in an appearance on NBC's Meet The Press, but said he "couldn't disagree more."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter and another potential VP pick, had harsh words for the real estate developer in an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

"This is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made. I think it's inexcusable," Gingrich said. "This judge was born in Indiana. He is an American — period. When you come to America, you get to become an American. And Trump, who has grandparents who came to the U.S., should understand this as much as anybody."

No surprise, critiques are also coming from Republicans who've so far held off on endorsing the presumptive nominee or, like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, vowed never to do so. Sasse tweeted this critique: "Public Service Announcement: Saying someone can't do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of 'racism.'"

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has not yet publicly endorsed Trump. She released a statement calling his remarks about Curiel, "absolutely unacceptable," and saying they show a "lack of respect for the judicial system and the principle of separation of powers."

Many in the GOP establishment talked of Trump becoming more presidential as he turned away from the primary, but the past week has made that look less likely. Trump is taking comfort in polls showing him in a close race with Hillary Clinton, and unless that changes he may not change course anytime soon.

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.