The issue that has roiled North Carolina erupted into the Republican presidential race Thursday, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz attacking Donald Trump over his criticism of the state’s actions over transgender bathrooms.
Trump’s comments also put him at odds with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which passed the bill last month, and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed it.
The flap came days before lawmakers return to session, where they’re expected to consider McCrory’s request to change part of the law. And it came as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver repeated his warning that Charlotte could lose next year’s All-Star Game if the law remains unchanged.
It was also the latest example of the issue dividing Republicans.
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Passed last month, HB2 pre-empted a Charlotte ordinance that would have let transgender people use the bathroom of their gender identity and extended nondiscrimination protections to sexual orientation. Trump was asked about HB2 during a televised town hall hosted by NBC’s “Today Show.”
“North Carolina did something that was very strong, and they’re paying a big price,” he said. “Leave it the way it is. North Carolina, what they’re going through, with all of the business and all of the strife – and that’s on both sides – you leave it the way it is.
“There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go, they use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble. And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic punishment they’re taking.”
It wasn’t clear whether Trump was talking about the state restrictions or the city ordinance that promoted them. The Trump campaign could not be reached.
But responding to another question, Trump said Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman, could use any bathroom that she wants at New York’s Trump Tower.
Cruz wasted little time attacking Trump, who leads the GOP race for convention delegates.
“Donald Trump is no different from politically correct leftist elites,” Cruz said in a statement. “Today, he joined them in calling for grown men to be allowed to use little girls’ public restrooms. As the dad of young daughters, I dread what this will mean for our daughters – and for our sisters and our wives.…
“He has succumbed to the Left’s agenda, which is to force Americans to leave God out of public life while paying lip service to false tolerance.”
Other presidential candidates have distanced themselves from HB2. Republican John Kasich has said he would “probably not” have signed it. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both condemned it as discriminatory.
Democrats pounced on Trump’s comments.
“Pat McCrory’s discrimination law is so extreme even Donald Trump won’t support it,” state state party Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds said in a statement.
Trump’s comments put Democrats in the unfamiliar position of agreeing with him. A party press release even said the New York billionaire had “joined the growing list of business leaders” against HB2. Democrats have roundly criticized Trump’s statements on immigration, Muslims and other issues.
McCrory’s campaign spokesman responded to Trump’s comment by pointing to the Charlotte ordinance that prompted the state law.
“Gov. McCrory has always said that North Carolina was getting along fine before the Charlotte city council passed its unneeded and overreaching ordinance,” Ricky Diaz said.
“Where the governor disagrees with Mr. Trump is that bathroom and shower facilities in our schools should be kept separate and special accommodations made when needed. It’s just common sense.”
Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger, who Wednesday defended the N.C. law, could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman said, “There are many reasons Sen. Berger endorsed Ted Cruz for president.”
State Sen. Ronald Rabin of Harnett County, one of few GOP officials in the state who have endorsed Trump, said the candidate’s comments aren’t likely to sway GOP lawmakers.
“I don’t think he’s been fully read into what the law’s all about,” Rabin said. “When he finds out what it’s like he’ll probably change his mind again. I stand fully behind the law.”
Rabin said he wouldn’t want his wife in a restroom and “letting some guy who feels like he’s a girl today walking in and doing whatever.”
Campaigning Thursday in Matthews with 9th District congressional candidate Mark Harris, Mike Huckabee said he couldn’t go along with Trump’s view on HB2.
“I agree with Donald Trump on many things. But on this, I strongly disagree,” the former GOP presidential candidate said. “I think that there is a lack of rational thinking and common sense when we think it would be OK for a person who is a biological male to go into a restroom with my 4-year-old granddaughter.”
Trump’s remarks underscored the continuing GOP divide over the issue.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, addressing a similar bill in her state, said it wasn’t necessary. The Republican governor of South Dakota recently vetoed a similar bill. Georgia’s Republican governor vetoed a bill that critics argued was also discriminatory against the LGBT community.
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker called HB2 “patently discriminatory.” And Hugh Heweitt, a conservative talk show host, talked about it on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.”
“This is not the terrain the Republican Party wants to fight this election on,” he said.
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed