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U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, hoping to help unify Republicans after a divisive presidential primary election campaign, began rolling out his policy agenda on Tuesday only to run straight into the uproar over Donald Trump's comments about a Hispanic judge.
Ryan, flanked by fellow House Republicans, was unveiling a plan to combat poverty through work-related initiatives but immediately found himself in the middle of the latest controversy around the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for the White House.
"I regret those comments that he made. Claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed," Ryan told reporters.
Later in the day, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, "My advice to our nominee is to start talking about the issues that the American people care about, and to start doing it now," McConnell told reporters when asked about Trump's comments.
"In addition to that, it's time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message," he said.
Trump has faced a barrage of criticism from his own party over his allegations of bias against a Hispanic judge. He refused to back down on Monday on his comments last week suggesting that Mexican-American U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing fraud lawsuits against Trump University, is biased against him because of his heritage.
Despite his strong condemnation of Trump on this issue, Ryan, the country's highest-ranking elected Republican, still sought to present Trump's candidacy as the way forward for Republicans. "We have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with (Democrat Hillary Clinton)," he said.
Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for the Nov. 8 presidential election, has pledged to seal the U.S.-Mexico border with a wall, and has said Mexico is sending rapists and drug dealers to the United States.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defended Trump and said that the presumptive GOP nominee is "not a racist." Christie endorsed the billionaire in February and has since been tapped to lead the transition team, should Trump win the presidential election. When asked on Tuesday if Trump's rhetoric has gone too far, Christie said that if he thought about it, he probably could come up with a couple of times the nominee's comments went too far.
Trump has regularly stirred up controversy on the campaign trail and has frequently dismayed Republican establishment leaders. His view of an ethnically biased judiciary has drawn a fresh wave of criticism, including concern in his own party.
On Sunday he was asked if — by the same token — he believed a Muslim judge would be biased against him based on Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. "It's possible. Yes," Trump said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Republican leaders including Ryan and McConnell have distanced themselves from Trump's comments, saying they are worried the tone of his presidential campaign could enrage Latinos, who are a growing U.S. voting bloc.
It was unclear what, if any, effect the latest furor would have on Trump's unorthodox candidacy. States with significant Hispanic populations including California, New Mexico and New Jersey hold nominating contests on Tuesday.
— CNBC.com contributed to this report.