WASHINGTON (AP) — Years of Republican hardline politics and divisive rhetoric have spawned Donald Trump and the "crackup" of the GOP, President Barack Obama said Thursday, scoffing at the notion that his actions or policies were to blame for the charged political climate.
At a Rose Garden press conference, Obama laid the responsibility on Republican leaders, who tolerated "maximalist," uncompromising politics and created an environment where "somebody like Donald Trump can thrive." The president said conservative leaders should reflect on the policies that landed the party in its current turmoil.
Obama appeared primed to get his thoughts off his chest, noting he's repeatedly been asked whether he accepts blame for the climate. He finds that idea "novel," he said.
"What I'm not going to do is to validate some notion that the Republican crackup that's been taking place is a consequence of actions that I've taken," he said. "I don't think I was the one to prompt questions about my birth certificate, for example. I don't remember saying, 'Hey, why don't you ask me about that?"
The president argued that Trump, the billionaire front-runner for the GOP nomination, is not an outlier. He said Trump's policies, particularly on immigration, are not so different from proposals of rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
As Obama spoke at the White House, GOP candidates were preparing for a Thursday night debate in Miami and high-stakes elections in Florida and Ohio next Tuesday. Meanwhile, anxious Republican officials were coming to terms with the idea that Cruz —their second-least-favorite GOP presidential candidate — may be the only chance to stop Trump's march to the nomination.
Trump renewed his vigorous criticism of Texas Sen. Cruz, casting the rival he calls "Lying Ted" as too polarizing to break the Washington gridlock or win a general election.
"The problem with Ted is that he'll never get anything done," Trump told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday. "And the bigger problem is that it's impossible for him to get elected."
Some of Cruz's would-be backers have those same fears. But they fear the prospect of a Trump candidacy more.
The two men were to clash again on the debate stage Thursday night along with Florida Sen. Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich who are fighting with Cruz to emerge as the strongest alternative to Trump. For now at least, Cruz appears to be ahead in that contest.
Possible Cruz supporters include reluctant Senate colleagues and former presidential rivals with strong ties to major donors. The first-term senator announced the backing of one former primary opponent, Carly Fiorina, on Wednesday and is seeking the backing of another, Jeb Bush, on Thursday.
"Donald Trump needs to be beaten at the ballot box," Fiorina declared Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
On Capitol Hill, former Cruz adversary, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, has reluctantly embraced the idea of a Cruz nomination.
"It's an outsider year, and the most logical person to take on Trump based on past performance is Ted Cruz," Graham said. Earlier in the year, Graham likened the choice between Cruz and Trump to "being shot or poisoned."
"He's not my preference," Graham said of Cruz. "But we are where we are. And if Trump wins Florida and Ohio, I don't know if we can stop him."
Indeed, next Tuesday's winner-take-all contests in Florida and Ohio have injected a sense of urgency into the GOP's anti-Trump movement.
The celebrity businessman's critics hope to capitalize on what they see as another inflammatory reference about Muslims. "I think Islam hates us," he said late Wednesday on CNN. "There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it."
At the same time, Trump is calling on mainstream Republicans to unify behind hm.
"Whatever the establishment is, they should embrace what I've done," he said on CNBC.
AP writers Julie Pace and Steve Peoples in Miami, and Mary Clare Jalonick, Donna Cassata, Josh Lederman, Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.