Republican congressional leaders sharply rebuked GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday and demanded that he denounce racism after he stumbled on questions about the Ku Klux Klan and former grand wizard David Duke.
Without naming Trump, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., both took shots at the Republican front-runner. Following a weekly Senate Republican luncheon, McConnell told reporters that he wanted to talk “about one of our presidential candidates and his seeming ambivalence about David Duke and the KKK.”
“So let me make it perfectly clear: Senate Republicans condemn David Duke, the KKK and his racism,” McConnell said. “That is not the view of Republicans that have been elected to the United States Senate. I condemn his comments in the most forceful way.”
He added: “The Republican Party condemns in the strongest possible language David Duke, the KKK and everything they stand for.”
Hours earlier, Ryan, R-Wis., said, “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasions and no games.”
“They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” Ryan told reporters on Capitol Hill. “This party does not prey on people’s prejudice. This is the party of Lincoln.”
Trump was asked repeatedly on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday whether he would disavow Duke and white supremacist groups that are backing his campaign.
“I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “So I don’t know. I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.”
Trump, appearing on NBC’s “Today,” blamed the Klan controversy on a faulty earpiece that prevented him from fully understanding the questions.
“I’m sitting in a house in Florida, with a very bad earpiece that they gave me, and you could hardly hear what he was saying,” Trump said of Tapper. “What I heard was ‘various groups.’ And I don’t mind disavowing anybody and I disavowed David Duke.”
Ryan said he’d tried to avoid wading into the Republican presidential race but felt compelled to in weigh Tuesday because “when I see something that runs counter to who we are as a party and as a country, I will speak up.”
“We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government,” Ryan said. “This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand that.”
Although he condemned Trump’s initial response to the Klan and Duke questions, Ryan said he would support whoever emerged as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
The House Republican leadership had to deal with its own race-related controversy after a blogger reported in late 2014 that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., had spoken to a white supremacist group led by Duke in 2002. Scalise was a Louisiana state legislator at the time.
Scalise said that at that time he’d spoken to numerous groups trying to build support for a bill focused on “cutting wasteful spending, eliminating government corruption and stopping tax hikes.”
“One of the many groups that I spoke to regarding this critical legislation was a group whose views I wholeheartedly condemn,” he said in a Dec. 30, 2014, statement. “It was a mistake I regret, and I emphatically oppose the divisive racial and religious views groups like these hold.”