GOP aghast as Trump doubles down

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A defiant Donald Trump is refusing to backtrack over racially charged remarks he made last week, and the controversy has opened up a major divide between the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and senior GOP leaders.

The damage to Trump’s presidential bid escalated on Monday as a growing number of Republicans sought distance from him. The billionaire businessman has said that a judge presiding over lawsuits against Trump University would not give him a fair hearing because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. The issue dominated cable news networks over the weekend and into Monday.

Republican calls for Trump to walk back the comments or apologize have mounted. But true to his style, he is doubling down. 

{mosads}Trump instructed his supporters during a conference call Monday to defend his criticism of the judge and grew angry when he learned that his own campaign staff had sent a memo urging surrogates not to talk about the charged issue, according to a report by Bloomberg Politics.

Trump told his backers to “take that order and throw it the hell out” when informed of the memo circulated by campaign aide Erica Freeman, Bloomberg reported, citing sources who shared notes from the call.

A Trump campaign source who received the Sunday message from Freeman confirmed that she had told staff and surrogates that Trump University was not part of the campaign’s activities and therefore should not be discussed.

“We were not to talk about it, that there would be no talking points attached to it, and no directions from the campaign related to that issue,” the source said, paraphrasing his recollection of the email.

Trump’s penchant for pushing forward in the face of controversies has made him a hero among voters who are tired of political correctness. He believes the best strategy is to defend and attack — not apologize.

Trump sees no reason to change what was a winning formula in the Republican primary, putting knots in the stomachs of party leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“I just don’t see someone walking into Mr. Trump’s office and saying we really need to apologize,” said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who served as an adviser to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign.

“If somebody in Washington is holding their breath, waiting to give their endorsement on an apology, they’re going to be waiting a long time,” he said. “There are so many people in this country who are just sick and tired of our elected officials being apologetic for everything.”

When Trump spoke to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference last month, it sparked hope among Washington Republicans of a long-awaited pivot to the general election and a more presidential demeanor.

Those hopes, however, were dashed by Trump’s assertion last week that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over civil suits against Trump University, has “an inherent conflict of interest” because of Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants.

“I don’t think anyone is working on a strategy of how to engage Latino voters, and from what I see there is no serious analysis or assessment of the impact Mr. Trump’s comments are having on the Latino electorate,” Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said of his “limited contact” with Trump’s advisers.

“This is not rocket science. Just not talking is not that difficult, but he doubles down and triples down on these comments,” he said.

Aguilar said there are Latino conservatives and Republicans who want to work with Trump but warned that his campaign risks shutting them out.

“In a general election, you need to build a broader coalition, and so far I just don’t see it, and it’s very frustrating,” Aguilar added. 

The new fracture in the Republican Party comes as President Obama is reportedly attempting to unify Democrats around Hillary Clinton after a divisive primary. The Trump comments on Curiel are expected to dominate the political discussion this week, especially with lawmakers returning to the nation’s capital following the Memorial Day recess.

Before the latest flap, the most damning anti-Hispanic comment critics could point to was Trump’s assertion that Mexican criminals have streamed across the southern border.

Many Republicans view his attack on Curiel as bigoted, and he is getting no cover whatsoever from GOP legislators.

“Saying someone can’t do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of ‘racism,’ ” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who is not supporting Trump in the general election, tweeted.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, said Trump’s comments were “offensive and wrong and he should retract them.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), one of the GOP’s most prominent Hispanic leaders, said the remarks do not reflect well on the party or the nation.

“I think it’s wrong,” Rubio, who ran against Trump in the primary, told WFTV in Florida. “He needs to stop saying it.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who also lost to Trump in the presidential primary, called on Trump to apologize to Curiel and to try to unite the country.

He tweeted “it is flat out wrong” to attack a judge based on race or religion.

Ben Carson, who endorsed Trump after running against the billionaire businessman, tweeted Monday, “Every human being is an individual first rather than a member of an identity group. The moment we forget that is the moment we enter into a phase of moral descent.”

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is not backing Trump, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that his comments are  “offensive” and had sunk to “a whole new level.” More than 30 percent of his state’s population is Hispanic.  

Even some Republicans more favorably disposed to Trump were appalled.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has been floated as a potential running mate, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the remarks were “inexcusable.”

But instead of feeling chastened, Trump is fighting back, as he has throughout the campaign.

“I saw Newt and I was surprised at Newt. I thought it was inappropriate what he said,” Trump said Monday on “Fox & Friends.”

Democrats have pounced on the discord and are using Trump’s words to bludgeon GOP candidates down-ballot.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) on Monday bashed McConnell for not explicitly denouncing Trump during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

McConnell said he “couldn’t disagree more with what he had to say” but declined to condemn the statement as racist.

“Sen. McConnell repeatedly refused to say Donald Trump’s attacks on Judge Curiel’s ethnicity are racist. This is precisely the type of failure that gave rise to Donald Trump in the first place,” Reid argued on the Senate floor.

Republican strategists, realizing there’s little that can be done to corral Trump, say the party’s best strategy may be to elevate other voices who are seen as more inclusive of Hispanic perspectives, such as Rubio.

“Republicans have to ensure that voters hear from a wide variety of voices in the Republican Party to reflect the big tent that it’s built under,” said Josh Holmes, a former senior aide to McConnell. “The point is the Republican Party is not a single voice and never has been. It’s important for voters to understand the different perspectives in the party.”

Ben Kamisar and Jonathan Swan contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Jeff Flake Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan
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