Donald Trump's running mate Mike Pence refused on Tuesday to say whether he thinks white supremacist David Duke is deplorable, repeating that he's "not in the name-calling business," as he tried to brush off the issue as a distraction.
Pence was asked at a news conference with House Republican leaders in Washington whether he wanted to amend comments he made on CNN the previous day. In the interview, he denounced support from Duke, but declined to say whether the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan can be considered part of the "basket of deplorables" — the phrase Hillary Clinton used to describe half of Trump's supporters last week.
"The simple fact is I'm not in the name calling business," Pence said Tuesday. "But I'm also not going to validate the language Hillary Clinton used to describe the American people."
Clinton weighed in on Twitter on Monday, saying, "If you won't say the KKK is deplorable, you have no business running the country."
Clinton's running mate Tim Kaine said Tuesday that Trump's campaign is not taking a tough enough line on bigotry.
"If you are chumming around with the head of the Klu Klux Klan, people who have that title, that's deplorable," Kaine said. He did not say who was "chumming around" with Duke.
Pence, the governor of Indiana, said on Twitter Monday night that his comments about Duke, in a pair of interviews on CNN and Fox News, were being taken out of context. And on Tuesday, when he gathered with House Republican leaders, Pence again expressed frustration with being asked about Duke for a second day.
"For all the world, I have no idea why this man keeps coming up," he said, calling Duke a "bad man," and saying that the issue has served as a mere distraction.
"Donald Trump and I have denounced David Duke repeatedly," he added. "We have said we do not want his support and we do not want the support of people who think like him."
A spokesman for Duke, who is running for Louisiana's U.S. Senate seat, had no immediate comment Tuesday. But Duke told BuzzFeed News on Monday that he was pleased that Pence declined to call him "deplorable."
"It's good to see an individual like Pence and others start to reject this absolute controlled media," Duke told BuzzFeed News. "The truth is the Republican Party is big tent. I served in the Republican caucus. I was in the Republican caucus in the legislature. I had a perfect Republican voting record. It's ridiculous that they attack me because of my involvement in that nonviolent Klan four decades ago."
Pence tried to keep the focus on Clinton's original comments from an LGBT fundraiser Friday night, where she said half of Trump's supporters were "deplorables." She has said she regrets using the term "half" to describe the proportion of Trump supporters she considers "deplorables," but she didn't back down from describing his campaign as largely built on prejudice and paranoia.
"What Hillary Clinton apparently doesn't know is the people supporting this campaign are hard-working Americans," Pence said. "For Hillary Clinton to express such disdain for millions of Americans I think is one more reason that disqualifies her to serve in the highest office of the land."
Pence, a 12-year veteran of the House, made the rounds Tuesday in Washington, meeting privately with House and Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill. One of those meetings was with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who Pence had endorsed prior to Indiana's primary. Cruz, who dropped out of the race after losing Indiana, has refused to endorse Trump.
Cruz told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he had a "good and productive conversation" with Pence and a "very good meeting." He called Pence a "good man, a friend" and a "strong conservative."
But Cruz left without answering questions about whether he will vote for Trump, endorse him or whether Pence asked him to publicly back Trump.