WASHINGTON — Top Republicans' hopes for Donald Trump to change his rhetoric and act more presidential are slowly fading.
Senate Republicans have been pushing — and basically publicly pleading with — Trump to focus more on issues rather than personal attacks. Now they're losing patience after the party's standard bearer doubled down on his criticism of a judge presiding over cases against Trump University because of his "Mexican heritage."
"Let's face it — 'meet the new Trump' is a lot like the old Trump," Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who has said he won't vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, told reporters Tuesday afternoon in the Senate basement. "For those of us who had hoped we'd see the 2.0 version, I think the realization is coming that we got what we got. That's not somebody who can win the White House."
Flake went on to say that some Republicans, especially those in tough re-election races, may rescind their support in the wake of these comments, which House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday called the "textbook definition of racism."
"Republicans want to win the White House," Flake said. "But obviously people are concerned about their own races."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham who is now calling on Republicans to un-endorse Trump said the party's presumptive nominee "has poured gasoline on every problem" the party had in the 2012 election. "I can understand not breaking now," he told reporters, "but if he continues this after everybody is literally begging him not to do this, then it really puts us in a spot about 2016 versus the future of the party."
Graham recently spoke on the phone with Trump, who had been trying to make inroads with Hill Republicans. When asked if it was still worth Republicans pushing Trump to be more presidential, he said: "I have no idea."
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk became the first to un-endorse Trump on Tuesday, but for now, most vulnerable GOP incumbents are sticking to saying they will support the nominee. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte did call on Trump to retract his comments. "It's wrong and offensive, and he should retract it," Ayotte said as she sprinted past reporters who pressed her on Trump-related questions.
Ayotte did not answer when asked if she would still vote for him if he didn't retract his comments.
Worried about losing control of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon — during which he was repeatedly asked about Trump — that his advice to the billionaire continues to be to talk about the issues. "Get on message," he said. "He has an opportunity to that. This election is still winnable."
What exactly that message is remains somewhat unclear.
And despite everything, South Dakota Sen. John Thune said there continues to be an idea that Trump will position himself for the general election. "I think there's an expectation that he's going to change his tone. If he doesn't, then this is going to be an ongoing problem for him. It will make the hill to climb for him much steeper."
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, whose name has come up as a potential vice presidential pick and who has met with Trump, said the party's presumptive nominee has shown "glimmers" of changing direction but then reverted to his old ways. He has only a few weeks before the convention to convince the party that he can be a general election candidate, Corker said, adding that Trump really "stepped in it" with his latest comments.
"I think he's got a period of time where he can assess and understand the incredible opportunity before him and change direction," he said. "If not, as we start moving close to the convention, it's very problematic."
"The primary process is over. Candidates that really want to lead a unified nation have to pivot in a very different direction."