ERIE, Pennsylvania — Republican Donald Trump on Friday backed away from comments calling President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the founders of the militant group Islamic State, while the Republican Party sought to project unity behind their candidate.
A new poll showed Trump, whose unfiltered speaking style has repeatedly landed him in hot water, losing ground in three crucial states ahead of the Nov. 8 general election against Clinton.
In a surprise appearance, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who in private expressed fury over some of Trump’s actions earlier this month, introduced the candidate at a campaign event in Erie, Pennsylvania, and the two hugged onstage.
“We’re so honored to be working with Donald Trump and the campaign,” Priebus told thousands of Trump supporters.
“And don’t believe the garbage you read. Let me tell you something. Donald Trump, the Republican Party, all of you, we’re going to put him in the White House and save this country together.”
Republican sources earlier this month said Priebus was furious over Trump’s failure to endorse House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and his feud with the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq. Trump did endorse Ryan a few days later.
Trump on Friday told the rally that his remarks earlier this week calling Obama and Clinton the founders of ISIS, as the Islamic State is also known, had been sarcastic.
“I said Obama is the founder of ISIS. The founder! And these dishonest media people, they’re the most dishonest people,” Trump said.
“So I said the founder of ISIS, obviously a big sarcastic, but not that sarcastic to be honest with you,” he added.
Trump first made the unfounded claim on Wednesday and repeated it through the week, including in an interview on Thursday with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.
“I meant he’s (Obama) the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player,” Trump said, adding that Clinton also deserved the MVP award.
Trump claimed sarcasm in July as well after he was heavily criticized for inviting Russia to dig up tens of thousands of “missing” emails from Clinton’s time as U.S. secretary of state.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll released on Friday suggested support for Trump is eroding among voters in three battleground states.
Such states are hotly contested because their populations can swing either to Republicans or Democrats and thus play a decisive role in presidential elections, which are ultimately decided by the state-by-state tally of the Electoral College.
The poll found Clinton widening her lead in Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, while holding her advantage in Florida.
Clinton released her tax returns on Friday, painting the move as a sign of transparency that her campaign says Trump lacks.
U.S. presidential candidates are not required to release their tax returns, but it has become a common custom. Clinton’s tax returns have been made public, in some form, every year since 1977.
Trump has cited an audit by the Internal Revenue Service in refusing to release his returns. Trump also has said his taxes are no one’s business and that they reveal little.
Trump scheduled a speech in Warren, Ohio, on Monday that will focus on how he would handle the threat posed by the Islamic State. Trump has said he would “knock the hell out of ISIS,” without offering details, and would persuade Gulf states to bankroll safe zones for Syrian refugees so they would not have to be brought to the United States.
Trump, a New York businessman who has never held elected office, has been mired in repeated controversies in recent days. He drew heavy criticism after he suggested gun rights activists could take action against Clinton, a statement he later said was aimed at rallying votes against her.
Nearly one-fifth of registered Republicans now want Trump to drop out of the race for the White House, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday.
Trump was scheduled to hold another rally in Pennsylvania on Friday, in Altoona.
Republicans frequently trace the birth of the Islamic State to the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw the last U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.
But many analysts argue its roots lie in the decision of George W. Bush’s Republican administration to invade Iraq in 2003 without a plan to fill the vacuum created by Saddam Hussein’s ouster. It was Bush’s administration that negotiated the 2009 agreement that called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.