Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 6, 2016 in Bethpage, New York.
Top Republicans knock Donald Trump over judge comments
02:03 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Donald Trump's Republican endorsers range from the enthusiastic to the halfhearted

"His comments are offensive and wrong, and he should retract them," Ayotte said.

Washington CNN  — 

Donald Trump’s Republican endorsers – ranging from the enthusiastic to the halfhearted to the come-lately – together staked out a freshly warped position Monday: I’ll take the candidate, but not his fights.

A battery of Republican officials have sharply distanced themselves from their presumptive nominee, with figures across the ideological spectrum calling his latest comments unacceptable. But no Republican endorser has drawn the ultimate distance – disavowing the candidate making those provocative claims.

Republicans have expressed a deep desire for “party unity,” but on Monday and Tuesday they largely refused to stand beside him and take the heat.

“I’m not even going to pretend to defend them,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said a Washington news conference Tuesday, adding that Trump’s remarks resembled “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Trump’s mission to discredit the federal judge overseeing the Trump University case is throwing the GOP into choppier waters each time he assails the Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel as a “Mexican.” While it was not unprecedented for Trump surrogates to sometimes struggle to defend the candidate of their choice during the primary, Monday was the first day in Trump’s campaign when a wide range of GOP party elders – not just the few who endorsed him in the primary – had to go to bat for him.

And it was not easy.

In recent interviews, former 2016 rival Marco Rubio, a first-generation Cuban-American had signaled a new appreciation for Trump – even saying he would speak for him at the convention.

But Rubio’s smackdown Monday included a reminder that he never wanted Trump to be the nominee in the first place.

“I told everyone that this is what would happen,” he told CNN. “That we would continue to be faced with this very difficult choice, as we are, as many of us have been, between Hillary Clinton and Donald. This is not where I wanted us to be.”

Embattled New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who is waging a reelection battle in New Hampshire, has previously tried to split the difference with Trump by “supporting” – but not “endorsing” – him.

“His comments are offensive and wrong, and he should retract them,” she said on Monday.

Ayotte’s Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, didn’t fare much better on “Meet the Press” a day prior.

“This is a man who was born in Indiana,” McConnell said of Curiel. “All of us came here from somewhere else.”

Yet McConnell, who has publicly leaned into his endorsement of Trump more strongly than have other Republican elites, wouldn’t cross the line when asked repeatedly if Trump’s charge was racist: “I couldn’t disagree more with a statement like that,” he said repeatedly of Trump’s remarks.

McConnell’s comments illustrated the tightrope that all Republican leaders find themselves traipsing a month after Trump became their standard-bearer: They are eager to channel Trump’s grassroots energy into common goals like Senate races this fall, but will likely be forced to repeatedly criticize the explosive statements that Trump has shown no willingness so far to abandon.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also called Trump to discuss the comments, CNN confirmed Tuesday.

And the comments and their fallout made no Republican more uncomfortable than Ryan.

“The comment about the judge, just was out of left field for my mind,” Ryan told WISN in Milwaukee on Friday, nearly a week after Trump first criticized Curiel and one day after Ryan endorsed Trump. “It’s reasoning I don’t relate to; I completely disagree with the thinking behind that.”

And Ryan signaled that the controversy of the moment was unlikely to be an aberration.

“(Trump) clearly says and does things I don’t agree with and I’ve had to speak up from time to time when that has occurred,” Ryan said. “And I’ll continue to do that if that’s necessary – I hope it’s not.”

Ryan only formally endorsed Trump last week. During his lengthy, public agonizing over whether to support the man whose convention he will chair, Ryan repeatedly called for “real” party unity derived from shared principles. In blessing Trump, Ryan last week said he and Trump had reached such unity.

“I don’t know what’s in his heart, but I know that comment is that way,” Ryan said Tuesday, when asked a follow-up question if Trump himself was racist.

But Monday was a reminder that the distance between them is wide, and that “party unity” has its downsides for the House speaker determined to roll out his own policy vision.

For Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator and who is backing him now but chose Rubio in the primary, lamented that Trump’s racially charged language had not evolved since then.

“I think they were racially toxic,” Scott, the only African American in the body, said of Trump’s latest. “Obviously his comments were in line with his primary language, which is not in our best interest either.”

CNN’s Jim Acosta and Tom LoBianco contributed to this report.