When Donald Trump emerged as the presumptive Republican nominee in May, a GOP in denial reassured itself that the divisive, name-calling candidate who dominated the primaries would make a dignified turn toward the general election. A month later, Republicans are beginning to wake up. Trump might never change.
“For those of us who had hoped we would see the 2.0 version, I think the realization is coming that we got what we got,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) who has yet to endorse Trump. “That is not somebody who can win the White House.”
For months, Trump has made remarks and taken policy stances that many warned were dangerous, unlawful and even racist. Instead of moderating since he emerged as the party’s presumptive nominee, he kicked it up a notch with a sustained, racially-tinged attack on a federal judge presiding over lawsuits against his business.
With Trump’s repeated claims that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Latino heritage made him biased against the mogul — claims that he continued to make even after widespread GOP condemnation — Republicans are not only growing increasingly aware that there nominee may squander their best chance in years to put a Republican in the White House. They are now openly worried that Trump’s behavior could imperil the GOP for generations with minority voters.
“It’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups within the country and get on message,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Tuesday during his Capitol Hill press conference. He repeated his serious concerns that Trump could alienate Latino voters from the GOP in the same way that 1964’s nominee Barry Goldwater turned off African American voters from the party for decades.
The reality is sinking in. The clock is ticking. Trump isn’t changing. And the line he is forcing other Republicans too walk is grimace-worthy, to say the least. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called Trump’s attacks on the judge “the textbook definition of a racist comment” at a press conference, while repeating that he still supports presumptive nominee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of Trump’s GOP toughest critics, told reporters at the Capitol that he understood why Ryan, as House speaker, had to support Trump, but cautioned, “Mr. Trump needs to make it possible for our people to support him.”
“I can understand not breaking now, but if he continues this — after everyone has literally…[been] begging him not do it — then it really puts us in a spot about 2016 versus the future of the party,” Graham said.
Even Trump’s biggest cheerleaders on the Capitol Hill were put in an awkward position by the latest controversy.
Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) — who praised Trump relatively early on and met with him at Trump Tower– warned that the Trump campaign had only two or three weeks to make the changes it needs to.
“He’s got a period of time where he can assess and understand the incredible opportunity that’s before him and he can change directions. If not, if he starts moving closer to the convention and it’s similar I think it’s very problematic,” Corker told reporters on the Hill.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the first senator to endorse Trump, at first tried to avoid commenting Tuesday on Trump’s remarks about the judge. But he later said, according to the Washington Post, that it was “important that the campaign put its full focus on this campaign, the issues of the campaign, the vulnerabilities of Hillary Clinton and try to avoid distractions and issues unrelated to what the American people are really concerned about.”
One of Trump’s top surrogates in the House, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) insisted on CNN, “It’s time to just let go of this … and move on.”
Not long after McConnell fired his warning shot that Trump’s behavior threatened long-term harm to the party, Trump’s campaign released a lengthy, meandering statement that looked like an attempt to put out the fire his comments about the judge had caused.
It did not mention Curiel by name, nor did it apologize to him or recant the comments directly. But rather, Trump said in the statement that it “is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage.”
“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,” Trump said in Thursday’s afternoon’s statement, adding that he would not be commenting on the case any further.
But a good deal of damage had already been done by that point, as some GOP elected officials had already come forward and said the comments had cost Trump their public backing.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who faces a tough reelection race, formally withdrew his support. “Trump’s latest statements, in context with past attacks on Hispanics, women and the disabled like me, make it certain that I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for President regardless of the political impact on my candidacy or the Republican Party,” his statement said.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), the state’s first Hispanic governor, said his vote for Trump is no longer “for sure.”
“I will only say that you can’t defend the indefensible,” Sandoval, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal
Some still held out hope Trump could shift his position, but even they were skeptical.
“I think there is always a hope that he is going to change his tone, and I think there is an expectation that he is going to change his tone,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of GOP leadership, said among reporters on the Hill. “If he doesn’t, I think this is going to be an ongoing problem for him. It’s going to make the hill to climb much steeper.”