Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk on Tuesday said he "cannot and will not support" Donald Trump as the GOP's presidential nominee, citing the real estate mogul and former reality TV star's "past attacks on Hispanics, women and the disabled like me."
"It is absolutely essential that we are guided by a commander in chief with a responsible and proper temperament, discretion and judgment. Our president must be fit to command the most powerful military the world has ever seen, including an arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons," said Kirk, who suffered a stroke in 2012. "After much consideration, I have concluded that Donald Trump has not demonstrated the temperament necessary to assume the greatest office in the world."
The change of heart by Kirk, one of the most politically vulnerable Republican senators seeking re-election this fall, came a day after Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates accused him of being "complicit" in a Trump campaign of "hate and division" because of his silence over Trump's ethnicity-based criticism of a federal judge.
Kirk is the first Republican senator seeking re-election this fall to abandon Trump. Kirk distanced himself as colleague South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham urged Republicans to rescind their backing in light of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee's recent comments, including discomfort with a potential jurist of the Muslim faith.
"If he continues this line of attack, then I think people really need to reconsider the future of the party," Graham told CNN on Tuesday.
The discontent with Trump has been far reaching. In Iowa, state Sen. David Johnson, a conservative Republican, likened Trump's campaign to the rise of Adolf Hitler as the veteran lawmaker announced he was leaving the GOP and changing his political registration to "no party."
Other prominent Republicans disavowed Trump's comments about federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an East Chicago-born jurist of Mexican ancestry who is overseeing a civil suit against the former Trump University, but did not pull their endorsements.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump's remarks about Curiel were the "textbook definition of a racist comment." But Ryan said the GOP was more likely to get its policies enacted with Trump than Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Trump issued a lengthy statement Tuesday contending his comments "have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage." Trump said he does "not feel that one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial," but said he feels justified to question whether he is receiving a fair trial based on rulings in the case.
For Kirk, the rescinded endorsement seemed inevitable as Duckworth's central campaign message has been to link Trump to the senator. Prior to Kirk's statement, Illinois Democrats launched a website Tuesday highlighting controversial rhetoric used by Trump and the senator and quizzed visitors on which politician said what.
Trump's name is likely to appear above Kirk's on the Nov. 8 ballot, and the senator will need the support of moderate voters who might be inclined to vote for Clinton. But in abandoning Trump, Kirk also risks the ire of Republican conservatives who were never sold on him to begin with.
The decision marks the latest twist in Kirk's political relationship with Trump.
Just before the March 15 Illinois primary election, Kirk said he "certainly would" support Trump if he won the GOP nomination. Since then, Kirk also has contended Trump could be a "net benefit" for his Senate campaign and said that as president, Trump would need his "steady conservative hand" in the Senate.
But in April, Kirk said he would not attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, with his campaign saying the senator preferred to stay in his home state and work on his re-election effort. In recent weeks, Kirk has turned aside reporters' questions about Trump, including on May 12 when the business mogul held closed-door meetings with top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.
Then came Tuesday's statement cutting ties with Trump. A day earlier, Duckworth had appeared at an EMILY's List event where she warned Kirk that "silence is betrayal" when it comes to failing to take a stand against Trump's criticism of Curiel. "Trump may be a clown, but he isn't funny. He's not a riverboat gambler to be admired," Duckworth said.
The Kirk campaign had no direct response Monday. But in his statement Tuesday, Kirk said, "I have spent my life building bridges and tearing down barriers — not building walls. That's why I find Donald Trump's belief that an American-born judge of Mexican descent is incapable of fairly presiding over his case is not only dead wrong, it is un-American."
On Tuesday, Duckworth contended Kirk's decision to separate himself from Trump was more about politics and his re-election chances than anything controversial that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said.
"Now that Donald Trump is a liability, he's backing off. It's not about the values for Mark Kirk. If it were, he would have denounced Donald Trump a long time ago and not said he was looking forward to becoming a conservative adviser to Donald Trump," said Duckworth, who recited several controversial statements Trump and Kirk had made in the past.
"Sen. Kirk, why'd it take you so long to come out on the values that are right for this state and back off on your endorsement of Donald Trump?" she asked.
Still, even in moving away from Trump, Kirk offered a somewhat puzzling comment. A TV producer tweeted that Kirk told a CNN reporter he would write in David Petraeus for president. The high-profile former CIA director and general in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up pleading guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material following a scandal that included revelations of an extramarital affair with his biographer.
Kirk isn't the only high-profile Illinois Republican to publicly distance himself from Trump. Gov. Bruce Rauner issued a statement Tuesday saying he is "disgusted" by Trump's recent comments.
"Those comments do not reflect the values of the Republican Party. They do not reflect the values of America," he said.
Last month, Rauner indicated he won't attend the Republican National Convention or formally endorse Trump for president. Rauner repeatedly has sought to stay out of the presidential race, though he did say that as leader of the GOP in Illinois, he would back the eventual nominee. But Rauner aides have stressed there are various levels of "support," and that the governor would not be giving Trump a formal endorsement.
In recent days, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has twice compared Rauner to Trump. Locked in a political battle with Rauner over school funding, the mayor suggested both of the wealthy businessmen-turned-politicians use a "playbook of demonizing one group of people for his political advantage."
On Monday, Emanuel doubled down, saying it sounded like Rauner was trying out for a spot as the running mate of the controversial presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Rauner responded Tuesday. "I think politicians, sometimes when they're not confident in their own policy decisions, just throw a lot of mud," the governor said. "There's a lot of mud being thrown by the mayor and others."
Chicago Tribune's Katherine Skiba and Tribune news services contributed from Washington, D.C.