Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Tuesday that his persistent attacks against a Hispanic federal judge have been “misconstrued," an attempt to mitigate accusations of racism and intense scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Trump has repeatedly argued in recent weeks that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel should recuse himself from presiding over two lawsuits against the Trump University for-profit education business, in which Trump is a central party, because "he's a Mexican." Trump's suggestion that the judge's ethnic background posed a conflict of interest that made him unfit to preside over the lawsuits stunned political observers and prompted prominent members of the Republican establishment to sharply denounce his remarks.
The real estate mogul has made immigration reform — including proposals calling for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — central to his presidential campaign. Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrant parents.
In a lengthy written statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Trump sought to temper the criticism he was facing without apologizing for his remarks. He said 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."
Trump added that he does not believe that “one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial," but he continued to question whether Curiel has been impartial in the case.
“Based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case," he said, "I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.”
Trump said he will no longer comment on the case. It is scheduled for trial in November — after the presidential election.
In recent days, Trump continued to attack Curiel even as senior Republican officials and strategists implored him to tone down his criticism of the judge, particularly with regards to his ethnic background. Trump doubled down — and in so doing drew more attention to the Trump University lawsuit and emboldened critics who have long accused him of racism.
Republicans and Democrats alike have blasted the remarks. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday that “claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment."
Democrats see the case as an opportunity to call into question Trump's temperament, his attitudes about race relations and his business practices.
Last week, as part of court proceedings, Curiel ordered the release of embarrassing internal documents that revealed Trump University’s predatory marketing practices. Staff members of the business were instructed to push customers to purchase expensive follow-up courses, often well beyond their means, with promises of success and trade secrets.
Trump's attempts to discredit Curiel in highly personal terms prompted concern among legal experts, who worried that his assault represented a disregard for judicial independence. They argued that it could carry constitutional implications and signal a testy relationship between the branches of government if he is elected president.
The Trump campaign and its surrogates have regularly pointed to Curiel’s membership in the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association — an organization for Hispanic lawyers — to erroneously suggest that Curiel has participated in political activities against Trump. They appear to have conflated the lawyers group with the National Council of La Raza. The two groups are unrelated.
In his statement on Tuesday, Trump again alluded to a potential association.
“Due to what I believe are unfair and mistaken rulings in this case and the Judge’s reported associations with certain professional organizations, questions were raised regarding the Obama appointed Judge’s impartiality,” Trump said. “It is a fair question. I hope it is not the case.”