The racial controversy that threatens to derail Donald Trump’s campaign began on a sunny, late May afternoon in San Diego, where the White House hopeful went on an 11-minute tirade against the Latino judge handling fraud lawsuits against his Trump University business.
By this week, the uproar — and Trump’s refusal to back down — prompted a full-scale effort by senior Republicans to get things back on track. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has spoken with Trump in person and over the phone over the past several days, arguing that the real estate mogul needed to do damage control. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus also counseled Trump, and even offered editing suggestions to a statement Trump finally issued seeking to clarify his remarks.
For Trump, the period between his boisterous May 27 San Diego rally and the restrained news conference he gave at his golf course in Westchester County, N.Y., on Tuesday night marked the most serious crisis faced by his year-long campaign, prompting condemnations from across the GOP and a growing number of defections among Republicans who declared they could not support him.
Trump was still dealing with the repercussion Wednesday. Rep. Bill Flores (Tex.), chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, said he still planned to vote for Trump but that he was withholding his endorsement. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt said the GOP “ought to change the nominee,” while others said Trump still needs to apologize for smearing the judge.
“It was pretty evident that this was a distraction, and so Mr. Trump obviously realized that and took the positive steps he took,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y,), a Trump supporter. “And many of us are very glad he did.”
With the GOP primary season complete and Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee, many Republicans on Wednesday were left hoping the episode would serve as a lesson of the limits that Trump should observe as a new phase of the race unfolds. On Thursday, Trump and his campaign aides will meet with major fundraisers in New York, while his backers in the House will meet with campaign representatives on Capitol Hill.
But there are plenty of prominent Republicans who are not ready to move on — at least not in lockstep with Trump.
“I’ve got to see that he’s going to start addressing the issues of the country instead of bashing judges,” Flores said. “I will vote for him, but in terms of getting my endorsement, I don’t endorse people that bash a judge based on his ethnic heritage.”
Hewitt said on his radio program that “right now the Republican Party is facing — the plane is headed toward the mountain after the last 72 hours.”
Many Republicans voiced public criticism of Trump’s comments, but it was the private talks, particularly between Christie and Trump, that seemed to have a particularly strong impact, according to those familiar with the efforts.
“Governor Christie is an experienced and effective communicator with sound political instincts,” said a person familiar with the conversations. “When asked, he has offered his advice and counsel to both the campaign staff and the candidate, including [on] yesterday’s speech.”
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Trump and Christie talk regularly and “this week was no exception.” She said Priebus and Trump talk “frequently.”
It was clear from the minute that Trump took the stage in San Diego that he was fuming. As he pulled his microphone into place, he shouted at the media: “Cameras! Turn over here. Turn over here, cameras! You know, they never want to show the crowds we get.”
Then he started in on the class-action fraud lawsuits against Trump University in San Diego, which are being overseen by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Trump told the crowd that “there should be no trial” in the case, apparently referring to one of the lawsuits set to go to trial in November after the election.
“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump — a hater,” Trump said before calling Curiel out by name, drawing boos. Outside, hundreds of protesters cursed Trump’s name.
The most controversial moment came when Trump said Curiel “happens to be Mexican, which is great — I think that is fine.”
Trump had attacked Curiel in February and mentioned his ethnic background. But coming at a time when he was not the presumptive nominee, his comments received less notice.
At a news conference at Trump Tower in Manhattan the following Tuesday, the Trump University lawsuit came up only briefly. “The judge has been very unfair, has not done a good job,” Trump said.
By last week, Trump was back in California for a three-day swing in which he declared his intention to put the safely Democratic state in play this fall. In a series of interviews that started during that stretch, Trump escalated his race-based criticism of Curiel, who was born in Indiana to parents who emigrated from Mexico nearly a century ago.
In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said explicitly for the first time that he thought Curiel’s Mexican heritage presented an “absolute conflict” in the case.
On Friday, Trump told CNN that although Curiel was born in the United States, “he’s of Mexican heritage and he’s very proud of it.”
“We’re building a wall,” Trump said in the interview. “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.”
In an interview broadcast on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Trump went further still, saying that he thought a Muslim judge might treat him unfairly because he wants to temporarily ban most foreign Muslims from entering the United States.
On Monday, Trump held a conference call with his most prominent surrogates and told them to defend his attacks on Curiel and journalists, even as a parade of Republicans had come out against his broadsides.
Then on Tuesday, it all screeched to a halt. Trump, who frequently tweets attacks against his critics, went quiet on social media for more than 20 hours. In the late afternoon, he issued a statement saying that his comments about Curiel were “misconstrued” and that he no longer intended to talk about the matter.
He made no apology. Still, for Trump, it was as close as he had come to saying sorry as a presidential candidate. Later that evening, Trump delivered subdued remarks at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester to mark the end of the GOP primaries. The mogul made no mention of the controversy that has embroiled his campaign in recent days, instead focusing his remarks on Clinton.
Afterward, Priebus complimented Trump’s speech in a tweet that read like a relieved exhale: “Great victory speech by @realDonaldTrump tonight. Exactly the right approach and perfectly delivered.”
The speech marked a sharp departure from Trump’s bombastic style on the campaign trail and his frequently hostile media interviews. Rather than ad-libbing from bullet points, as he often does, he read the speech carefully from two teleprompters.
In an interview with columnist Cal Thomas published Wednesday, Trump said he is in the midst of a pivot from the primaries to the general election. And Trump explained why he brought up Curiel in the first place: “Instead of saying I have no comment and then winning the case two years from now, I’d rather bring up parts of the case,” he said, later adding: “It’s worth my while to explain this because people then say, ‘Wow, I never knew that.’ ”
Mike DeBonis in Washington and Jose A. DelReal in New York contributed to this report.