Donald Trump said Tuesday that his comments questioning whether a federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage have been “misconstrued” and that he didn’t mean to impugn the American justice system with his complaints or Mexican-Americans in general.
But it seemed unlikely that Trump’s newest statement would blunt what has been a torrent of negative reaction to his comments – from both Republicans and Democrats – criticizing U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing a lawsuit against now-defunct Trump University, one of Trump’s many businesses.
Trump has repeatedly cited Curiel’s ethnicity in criticizing the judge’s handling of the lawsuit.
On Tuesday, Trump said his remarks had “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 said. “The American justice system relies on fair and impartial judges. All judges should be held to that standard. I do not feel that one’s heritage makes them incapable of being impartial, but, based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial.”
Curiel’s ethnicity has been a major part of Trump’s criticism of the judge since the Republican presidential candidate first referred to him as a “Spanish judge” in February at a rally in Arkansas.
“I believe he happens to be Spanish, which is fine,” Trump said then. “He’s Hispanic, which is fine.”
He expanded on his remarks in a Fox News interview a day later, saying he thought the reason Curiel had been hard on him “has do perhaps with the fact that I’m very, very strong on the border, very, very strong on the border, and he has been extremely hostile to me.”
Then in late May, Trump spent 12 minutes at a campaign rally in San Diego excoriating Curiel, calling him a “hater” and reminding the audience that the judge “happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine.”
Trump has kept up that line as recently as this past weekend, when he told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday that he had been “treated very unfairly” by Curiel, who he noted was of “Mexican heritage.”
Trump cited his proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the United States and suggested that Curiel “should recuse himself.”
Asked a minute later to clarify whether he was invoking ethnicity as a reason Curiel shouldn’t handle the case, Trump twice replied: “I think that’s why he’s doing it.”
Later, he said: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico. . . . This judge is giving us unfair rulings.”
As interviewer Jake Tapper noted that Curiel was “not from Mexico. He’s from Indiana,” Trump persisted, chalking up the “unfair rulings” to the judge’s background: “In my opinion – he is – his Mexican – Mexican heritage. And he’s very proud of it.”
Tapper noted that Trump wasn’t from Scotland because he has Scottish heritage.
“Excuse me. Hey, you know what?” Trump said. “I’m not building a wall between Scotland and the United States.”
Last Thursday, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that 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.
He told the newspaper that Curiel’s background was relevant because Trump has made immigration from Mexico a centerpiece of his campaign: “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” he said.
Trump told ”Face the Nation” on Sunday that Curiel’s ethnicity had “a lot to do with” adverse rulings he was getting.
“I say he’s got bias,” Trump said. “I want to build a wall. I’m going to build a wall.”
When host John Dickerson said he was confused over how Curiel’s parentage would play a role, Trump told him it was simple.
“It has nothing to do with anything except common sense,” he said. “We have to stop being so politically correct in this country. And we need a little more common sense, John. And I`m not blaming. I`m proud of my heritage. We`re all proud of our heritage. And I want to build a wall.”
In the interview, Trump didn’t rule out that a Muslim judge might be troublesome as well, given his call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States: “It’s possible, yes. Yes,” he said. “That would be possible, absolutely.”
It’s not the first time Trump has accused Mexicans of hostile behavior. When he announced his bid for office last June, he said that Mexicans coming across the border included rapists and drug dealers: “And some, I assume,” he said, “are good people.”