Wall Street Journal
By Janet Hook
June 6, 2016
On a day when a wave of Republican officials continued to turn against him on the issue, Mr. Trump held a conference call with supporters to fend off criticism for saying that U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel has a conflict overseeing cases against the Trump University real-estate program because of his Mexican heritage and Mr. Trump’s stated goal of building a wall on the southern border.
Critics, including leaders of Mr. Trump’s own party, have said his comments are offensive and follow a dangerous line of reasoning that could undermine the independence of the federal judiciary. Republican elected officials and strategists also worry the showdown will drive away Hispanic voters who will be critical in the party’s efforts to win the White House and hold its majority in the Senate.
At issue is a pair of cases Judge Curiel is presiding over in which the plaintiffs alleged Trump University duped them into paying tens of thousands of dollars in the belief they would be trained to learn Mr. Trump’s real-estate strategies.
Mr. Trump denies the allegations, saying the students got their money’s worth, with many offering positive evaluations of the program.
Among the latest allies to turn against Mr. Trump on the issue was Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Republican facing a tough re-election fight, who said of Mr. Trump Monday, “His comments are wrong and offensive and I’ve asked him to retract them.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been mentioned as a potential running mate, on Monday expanded on his earlier critique.
“We don’t judge you as part of a group. That would be to suggest that blacks can’t get a fair white judge, whites can’t get a fair black judge,” Mr. Gingrich said on “The John Gibson Show.” “Once you go down that road, you destroy America. You can’t take a group definition and apply it.”
During a Fox News interview Monday night, Mr. Trump didn’t repeat his attacks on Judge Curiel but did argue that labeling the Indiana-born jurist as “Mexican” won’t hurt his standing with voters.
“I don’t care if the judge is Mexican or not,” Mr. Trump told host Bill O’Reilly, who had just argued for Judge Curiel to recuse himself from the Trump University litigation. “I’m going to do great with the Mexican people because I’ll provide jobs.”
Mr. Trump added that he is “being treated very, very unfairly” by Judge Curiel, who is precluded from responding by the code of conduct for federal judges.
With the controversy intensifying, supporters were told in a memo from a Trump campaign aide over the weekend to hold off from discussing the issue.
On Monday’s conference call, Mr. Trump sent a different message and the campaign tried to arm supporters with facts to be able to shift the focus to Judge Curiel’s legal decisions and connections to Democrats.
Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said on CNN that the initial message had been to “hold off, let’s not talk about that until we have the facts, which is what happened on the conference call.”
“For surrogates that didn’t have the facts, of course the campaign is going to say, don’t talk about it,” she said.
The call, which lasted less than an hour, included a number of public figures who have been speaking out for Mr. Trump in the media, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and former Sen. Scott Brown, said one official on the call, which was first reported by Bloomberg News.
Such message-discipline calls are common during national political campaigns. What’s unusual for Mr. Trump is that he has taken it on himself to be his campaign’s chief messenger. Confusion about the message was another window onto the campaign’s struggles to get the party in line behind their presumptive nominee.
Ms. Pierson shrugged off criticism from GOP allies, saying they spoke because “the media pressure was intense.”
“This is typical reaction from Republican leaders,” she said. “At the first hint of controversy or criticism regarding race, they tuck their tails and run and want to condemn immediately without even trying to understand what’s happening here.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), one of the strongest Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, said he wasn’t on the call, but that he knew how passionately Mr. Trump feels about defending Trump University. “He feels like the lawsuit is not justified, and he’s been outspoken to that effect,” Mr. Sessions said.
But other Republican officials joined the chorus of those critical of Mr. Trump’s reference to the ethnicity of the judge.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former GOP presidential candidate, said on Twitter Monday, “Attacking judges based on their race &/or religion is another tactic that divides our country. More importantly, it is flat out wrong. @RealDonaldTrump should apologize to Judge Curiel & try to unite this country.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has just come around to endorsing Mr. Trump, said the comment was “out of left field…I completely disagree with the thinking behind that.”
Mr. Gingrich on Sunday called the attack on Judge Curiel “one of the worst mistakes Trump has made. I think it’s inexcusable.”
The judge has issued pre-trial rulings against Mr. Trump and has unsealed documents in the Trump University litigation offering a detailed look at the business’s operations and scathing assessments from some former workers.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Mr. Trump said Judge Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation, given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association.
Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of his campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said.
The New York businessman also alleged the judge was a former colleague and friend of one of the Trump University plaintiffs’ lawyers. The judge and the lawyer once worked together as federal prosecutors, but the lawyer, Jason Forge, in an interview said he had never seen the judge socially.
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