WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) argued Tuesday that even if Donald Trump's controversial remarks about the KKK and David Duke were intentional, rather than a gaffe induced by a faulty earpiece, he's still a better choice for president than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
On Sunday, Trump was asked three times whether he would disavow the support of David Duke, a leading white supremacist. Three times, he dodged the question. He has since said he couldn't entirely hear the question, an assertion that is difficult to believe, given that Trump repeated Duke's name in his own answer at the time. (Trump later tweeted that he does indeed disavow Duke, although a number of white supremacists don't believe he meant it.)
Reporter Todd Zwillich asked Rounds on Tuesday about Trump's role in the race, in the context of House Speaker Paul Ryan's condemnation of his KKK moment.
"If he is the nominee, then will he bring more people out or won't he? You can call it transactional, but it's factual," Rounds said of a Trump candidacy, arguing that it could boost GOP turnout.
I followed up with Rounds in the Capitol, asking: "But if the people he brings out are white supremacists, for instance, is that a calculation that plays into the mind of a senator who says, 'You know what, I didn't get into this for this'?"
"Honestly, I've only been here a year," Rounds replied, "but I can tell you that I can't think of a single person who would be in favor of, or promote anything to do, or give any credibility to any movement that would suspect or promote additional activity on the part of white supremacists. Down the line, Republican or Democrat, there is no room anyplace for supporters of the KKK or any other white supremacist group."
"It's unfortunate that it happened," he went on. "You know, the only part I saw the other day is where he said he was disavowing it. I understand that some other people said he didn't do it loud enough or whatever."
"No," I said. "Jake Tapper said to him 'I'm talking about David Duke and the KKK,' and he said 'Ku Klux Klan,' just in case he didn't know what KKK stood for. And Trump responded, 'I have to look into these groups... I don't know David Duke.'"
Rounds responded by saying he didn't think Trump meant it -- but that even if Trump answered that way on purpose, he'd still be a better choice for president than a Democrat.
Rounds' full quote, emphasis added:
I think it's an unfortunate response. A very unfortunate response. Like I say, I've met Mr. Trump once. It was a businesslike discussion and I walked away thinking he's been doing a great job as a showman out here and he's brought a lot of people into this thing. There was a side of him that I did not see when I visited with him personally.
My choice would still be -- honestly, I'm still leaning to Marco Rubio, as I suspect there are others [who] are. But nonetheless, our critical issue is fixing things in the United States, and you can't do that if you've got Bernie or Hillary, because they have a differing point of view about what's right and what's wrong with this country.
And there are some things wrong with this country: [The Congressional Budget Office] is very clear within 10 years -- the 250th birthday of our country, 2026 -- 99 percent of all the revenues we collect will go to two categories: interest on the federal debt and mandatory payments on entitlements. You can't fix that unless you've got a team in here agreed that you're focused on it. And I just don't think Democrats are going to do that. I think it has to be a Republican.
Even if you're disappointed with the way he's responding to things, even if you're mad at him, you disagree with him, if he did it intentionally -- I don't think he did, I think he just made a mistake -- even if he did, they're still going to do a better job with him there than if you had Hillary or Bernie in his place.
Rounds' party leader in the upper chamber, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), tried Tuesday to put an end to questions about Trump's KKK comments.
"I think it's very important that the American people understand that the Republican Party condemns in the strongest possible language David Duke, the KKK and everything they stand for," McConnell told reporters.
Still, like many other Republicans, McConnell wouldn't denounce Trump or say that he shouldn't be the nominee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), for his part, said Tuesday that he thought Trump was lying about the earpiece malfunction, and that perhaps he'd had second thoughts about his Friday disavowal of Duke. "Maybe somebody told him, 'Hey, you don't need to go there, you might lose a few votes,'" Graham said. "And so he tried to recalculate."
"I don't think it was a hearing problem," he went on. "I think he's lying about that."
This story has been updated with remarks from McConnell and Graham.
Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.
Sign up to get an email when Ryan Grim publishes a new story.