U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Lindsey Graham have joined a growing chorus of Republican leaders to disavow comments by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump about the Mexican heritage of a judge in a class-action lawsuit against Trump University.
Questioned Tuesday about Trump's comments, Ryan said "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 racism." But he did not retract his endorsement of Trump, made last week, and he said he does not believe Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton is "the answer."
Ryan made his comments during an appearance at a women's shelter in Washington, D.C.
In a New York Times interview, Graham, also a former presidential candidate, said Trump's remarks were "the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy," referring to the ultra-conservative senator of the 1950s who fueled fears of widespread communist subversion in the United States.
Graham also suggested that Republicans who have endorsed Trump reconsider their choice. "If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it," he said.
The backlash appears to be mounting against the candidate, who has repeatedly said he believes U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, because of his "Mexican heritage," would not rule fairly in the case charging Trump with fraud. Curiel is an American who was born and raised in the Midwestern U.S. state of Indiana.
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska who has criticized Trump on multiple occasions during the campaign, tweeted: "Saying someone can't do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of 'racism.'''
Sasse was joined Monday by two former rivals for the Republican nomination. Ohio Governor John Kasich tweeted that Trump's offensive "is flat out wrong.'' Trump, Kasich wrote, should "apologize to Judge Curiel & try to unite this country.''
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida agreed. "It's wrong and I hope he stops.''
Trump on Tuesday said the criticism of his remarks is unfair.
"It is unfortunate that my comments have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage. I am friends with and employ thousands of people of Mexican and Hispanic descent," he said.
But he said it is fair for him to question whether Curiel has a conflict of interest.
Trump insisted Monday that Curiel could not be impartial in the legal action against him because the jurist's parents were born in Mexico and Trump wants to build a wall along the Mexican border.
Republican Senator Susan Collins called Trump's comments "absolutely unacceptable."
Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela said in an open letter published Monday that Trump's "ignorant anti-immigrant opinions," border wall rhetoric and continued attacks on a sitting federal judge "are just plain despicable."
Vela, who represents a district along the U.S.-Mexico border, says his great-great-grandfather came to the United States in 1857, well before Trump's ancestors.
Vela wrote, "Mr. Trump you are a racist and you can take your border wall and shove it."
Kasich, Rubio, Collins and Ryan joined other top Republicans, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who all condemned Trump's remarks on Sunday.
While Trump has called repeatedly for Curiel to recuse himself, his lawyers have not made any such request. Judges generally are thought to have conflicts of interest only in more specific situations, such as a financial interest in the outcome of the case.
Trump's attacks on the jurist began when Curiel, at the request of news organizations, ordered the unsealing of documents in the case that have proved embarrassing for the real-estate magnate.
Asked by an interviewer Sunday whether he also would challenge the objectivity of a Muslim judge in a case involving him, given Trump's plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the candidate responded: "Yeah. That would be possible, absolutely.''