World / Politics

Ryan, other Republicans blast Trump's racist rants but still back him, even if at arm's length


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,” but the GOP’s top elected official said he still backs Trump for president.

“I regret those comments he made. Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Ryan said at a news conference. “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. 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 Indiana 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.”

The federal judge who has been criticized by Trump for a ruling in a lawsuit involving Trump University is not a “Mexican” as Trump once suggested, but a native-born American whose immigrant father worked in a Northwest Indiana steel mill.

U.S. District Court Judge Curiel was born in East Chicago, Indiana, and graduated from Indiana University before moving to California, where he was a federal prosecutor before his elevation to the bench.

Here are some things to know about Curiel:

Curiel is the youngest of four children born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrants who relocated to East Chicago for work in the steel mills.

Curiel graduated in 1971 from a Catholic high school in Hammond and completed his Indiana University law degree in 1979. He practiced law for several years in Dyer, a city in the northwest corner of Indiana about 30 miles south of Chicago, before leaving the state.

“My parents were not wealthy, or well connected, or even educated,” Curiel said during a 2014 commencement address at his alma matter, Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. “My parents came to Indiana from Mexico 70 years ago with little more than a fourth-grade education and a belief that they could build a life for their family.”

As an assistant U.S. attorney in Southern California, Curiel helped negotiate the extradition of Mexican drug traffickers to the U.S. and oversaw the prosecution that brought down the Arellano Felix drug cartel. At the time, Curiel received a death threat and was placed under protection of the U.S. marshals for about a year, his friend, Gregory Vega, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of California, told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Curiel was appointed to the federal bench in 2012 by President Barack Obama. In 2006, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, appointed Curiel to the Superior Court of San Diego.

Curiel is a decorated alumnus of IU’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. In April, he was named an Academy of Law Alumni Fellow — the school’s highest award — recognizing graduates who have “distinguished themselves in their careers through personal achievements and dedication,” according to the school.

Curiel also helped start a scholarship program named for his deceased brother, Antonio, who also was a Maurer graduate.

During the 2014 commencement address, Curiel urged Maurer graduates to have “civility and respect for those working with you and those opposing you.”

“Your reputation will be based as much on your legal ethics and civility as your work ethic and work product,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech.