WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that Donald Trump's comments about a U.S.-born judge of Mexican heritage are the "textbook definition of a racist comment." The presumptive GOP presidential nominee said his remarks have been "misconstrued" and he is justified in questioning the legal proceedings.
Ryan, the highest elected GOP official, told reporters that "claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It's absolutely unacceptable."
Ryan's comments highlight acute GOP divisions around Trump's candidacy, as Republicans squirm over what may be the billionaire's most incendiary stance to date — the claim that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel can't preside fairly over a case involving Trump University because the judge is of Mexican heritage and Trump wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
The flap comes as Republicans are struggling to close ranks behind Trump, and complicates those efforts. Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, one of the most endangered incumbents, reversed course and announced that he couldn't support Trump, calling his comments "un-American" and raising questions about the businessman overseeing the nation's nuclear weapons as commander in chief.
Hours after the comments, Trump responded with a statement, saying, "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."
He vowed that he would win the case.
Ryan endorsed Trump only last week after a lengthy delay, just before the judge controversy flared, and affirmed that stance again Tuesday even while he was unstinting in his criticism of Trump's comments. "But do I believe Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not," Ryan said.
"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," Ryan said. "But I do absolutely disavow those comments, I think they're wrong, I think they're wrongheaded, and the thinking behind it is something I don't even personally relate to."
Other Capitol Hill Republicans joined Ryan in heaping denunciations on Trump, yet in some cases continuing to back the billionaire in an awkward, arm's-length embrace.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only black Republican senator, called Trump's comments on the judge "racially toxic" yet said, "He needs to get onto the general election and we need to win."
"From what I know about Trump, he's not a racist. But he does make a lot of outrageous statements. And I think he ought to tone it down a little bit," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, while calling on the media to give Trump "leeway" for what he called a "mistake."
"Let's face it, meet the old Trump, just like the new Trump," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has long opposed the billionaire's candidacy. "We've got what we've got. That's not somebody who can win the White House."
"Where there's no talk of a convention challenge or anything else, this might spur it," Flake said of Trump's comments on the judge.
Democrats immediately ridiculed Ryan for denouncing Trump's comments as racist yet continuing to back his candidacy.
"Paul Ryan continues to endorse someone who spews racist rhetoric — the 'textbook definition' of a coward more concerned with partisan politics than the good of the country," said Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Curiel, who is presiding over a case alleging that Trump University fleeced students, was born in East Chicago to parents who came from Mexico in the 1940s. Trump has been questioned repeatedly about his stance that the judge's ethnicity makes him unqualified to preside over his case, but has refused to retract his comments, and may not be any more likely to do so in response to Ryan's complaints.
Ryan made his comments at an event in a low-income neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where he was unveiling new proposals to fight poverty, the first piece in a six-plank governing agenda by the House GOP.
But instead of discussing his poverty proposals he was forced to deal with numerous questions on Trump, illustrating anew Trump's tendency to create troublesome distractions for members of his own party. The flap over the judge is proving particularly problematic and leading Republicans have taken turns denouncing Trump's comments.
While some others have sought to avoid calling Trump or his comments out-and-out racist, Ryan leveled the charge matter-of-factly while still attempting to steer the conversation back to his agenda.
"I'm going to defend our ideas, I'm going to defend our majority, and I think our likelihood of getting these ideas into law are far more likely if we are unified as a party," Ryan said. "And so I see it as my job as speaker of the House to help keep our party unified. I think if we go into the fall as a divided party, we are going to lose, and that's why I am going to be focused on these ideas and these solutions and not attempt to defend the indefensible."