The Republican Party devolved into all-out civil war Tuesday as Donald Trump defended his racially tinged criticism of a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump University. GOP elected officials on Capitol Hill denounced the attack as offensive and one senator withdrew his endorsement of Trump entirely – forcing a hard reckoning among party leaders weighing the wisdom of hitching their White House hopes to a candidate whose racial views they describe as incompatible with party principles.
A source close to the Trump campaign, asked about a way forward for the candidate amid the growing controversy, suggested the candidate is unlikely to change his rhetoric.
“There’s nothing anyone can do,” the source, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, told NBC News. “Maybe a priest who can pray?”
The standoff has been rooted in Trump’s ongoing war waged on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an Indiana-born jurist whom Trump has repeatedly argued faces an “absolute conflict” in the Trump University case due to his “Mexican heritage.” Trump has insisted in interviews that his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to crack down on illegal immigration would color Curiel’s approach to the case.
A handful of Trump surrogates, including senior aide Barry Bennett and spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, went on offense on Tuesday, blaming the media for injecting Curiel’s ethnicity into the story – a topic Trump himself first raised in campaign speeches. The surrogates also raised questions about Curiel’s fairness based on his membership in a Latino law organization.
Late in the afternoon, Trump issued a lengthy statement complaining his remarks had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” and indicating he would not “comment on this matter any further.” He did not apologize or walk back his remarks.
Two sources close to the campaign described Trump on Tuesday as stubbornly opposed to backing down despite entreaties from aides, donors, supporters and party leaders, but one of the sources expressed hope that his statement would begin to defuse the standoff. In another sign Trump may be trying to rein himself in, the sources noted that he carefully prepared remarks – a rare occurrence -- for his speech on the final Republican primaries Tuesday night. Teleprompters were even spotted at his podium.
Even if Trump manages to move past the story in the short term, the damage could linger.
Trump’s criticism of Curiel generated a seething response from the party’s two highest-ranking officials, Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who at separate press conferences denounced Trump’s behavior in harsh terms.
“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.
Ryan, who endorsed Trump just days earlier, called the candidate’s remarks on Curiel “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Both Ryan and McConnell indicated they would not back off their support for Trump, arguing he was still a better option for Republicans than Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. But Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement on Tuesday, becoming the first high-profile lawmaker to do so since Trump secured the nomination.
“I cannot support him because of what he said about the judge,” Kirk, who faces a tough re-election in a blue state, told NBC News. “That was too racist and bigoted for me.”
Echoing recent attacks by Hillary Clinton on Trump’s fitness to command the military, Kirk also tweeted that Trump “does not have the temperament to command our military or our nuclear arsenal.”
Republicans’ deep unwillingness to associate themselves with Trump’s comments gave more cover to the party’s remaining holdouts, who had faced increasing pressure to endorse Trump before the Curiel story after polls showed him competitive with Clinton and widely supported by GOP voters.
“It's uncomfortable not having endorsed the Republican nominee, I have to say, but I can't at this point,” Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday.
Instead, the Republican Party presented a divided front, as its leading lights struggled to find a way to denounce the nominee’s racially inflammatory message while still supporting his candidacy.
The strongest defense of Trump from a major Republican politician came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who vouched for the candidate’s character before huddling with him at Trump Tower later that day.
“I know Donald Trump, I’ve known him for 14 years and Donald Trump is not a racist,” Christie told reporters earlier in the day. “And so, you know, the allegations that he is are absolutely contrary to every experience that I’ve had with him over the last 14 years.”
But even some of Trump’s top supporters sounded uncomfortable with the Curiel attack. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who generated speculation he might serve as Trump’s running mate after endorsing the real estate mogul’s campaign in February, told reporters he would not comment on the matter.
"He is learning and growing,” former Senator Scott Brown, another early Trump endorser, told Fox News.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, an influential lawmaker who had warmed to Trump in recent weeks, warned on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Trump needed to move past the Curiel issue and adopt a more inclusive message for the general election.
“He has, no doubt, missed an incredible opportunity,” Corker said. “He still has time to pivot. He does. Time is running short, but he has time to do that.”
Some seemed unsure how to navigate questions about the affair. In an appearance on CNN, Congressmen Lee Zeldin of New York said Trump’s remarks were a “regrettable mistake,” while awkwardly deflecting questions on whether Trump’s remarks were – as Speaker Ryan had put it -- racist.
“You could easily argue that [President Obama] is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric,” Zeldin said at one point, adding that the moral of the Trump story was that all Americans need to “up our game” and be more inclusive.
For conservatives in the #NeverTrump movement, which urged Republicans to reject the candidate during the primaries, the message was simpler: We told you so.
“What we are seeing is a Republican establishment now realizing that you really can’t make a deal with the devil,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted.