"I'm not sure exactly what he was trying to say," a Republican colleague said.
Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville on Tuesday said, simply and for the first time, that "white nationalists are racists."
That remark to reporters marked a reversal from days of controversial comments to the contrary, which had drawn criticism from Democratic leaders and head-scratching from some of Tuberville's Republican colleagues.
Earlier on Tuesday, the senator told ABC News that white nationalists shouldn't all be labeled as "racist" while also insisting he opposes racism.
Tuberville, a former college football coach first elected in 2020, had been pressed on his stance by ABC's Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott, who asked him, "Can you explain why you continue to insist that white nationalists are American?"
Scott was referring to commets Tuberville made first in May and then again earlier this week, after he was initially asked about military readiness and whether white nationalists should be able to serve.
"Listen, I'm totally against racism. And if Democrats want to say that white nationalists are racist, I'm totally against that, too," he told Scott on Tuesday, hours before changing his view.
"But that's not a Democratic definition," Scott said.
"Well that's your definition. My definition is racism is bad," Tuberville responded.
Scott followed up to say that the definition of a white nationalist is someone believing "the white race is superior to all other races" and asked, "Do you believe that white nationalists are racist?"
"Yes, if that's what a racist is, yes," he said.
The Associated Press defines the term as "a subset of racist beliefs that calls for a separate territory and/or enhanced legal rights and protections for white people" -- that is, a kind of nationalism defined by separating or excluding people by race.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday quickly denounced Tuberville's position.
"For the senator from Alabama to obscure the racist nature of white nationalism is indeed very, very dangerous," Schumer said. "His words have power and carry weight with the fringe of his constituency -- just the fringe, but if that fringe listens to him, excusing ... white nationalism, he is fanning the flames of bigotry and intolerance."
"I urge my Republican colleagues to impress upon the senator from Alabama the destructive impact of his words and urge him to apologize," Schumer said.
Tuberville has repeatedly challenged the label of "white nationalism," suggesting in interviews that he feels it is unfairly applied by Democrats and that the military, in particular, is wrongly focused on removing white nationalists from their ranks.
During a local radio interview in May, Tuberville -- who has been blocking certain military nominations over his objections to a Pentagon policy on service member abortion access -- was asked about how that could affect military readiness.
When he criticized "Democrats ... saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists," he was then asked, "Do you believe they should allow white nationalists in the military?"
"Well, they call them that. I call them Americans," he said.
He went on to condemn "extremists" who overran the Capitol during Jan. 6 but also defended those people whom he said did not actually enter the complex and "were true Americans that believe in this country."
He criticized a subsequent effort by the military to examine extremism in the ranks. Multiple active-duty service members and veterans have been convicted and sentenced for involvement in Jan. 6.
"Saying we're going to run out the white nationalists, people that don't believe how we believe .... that's not how we do it in this country," Tuberville said in May.
He later said on CNN that the point he was trying to make was narrower: "Democrats portray all MAGA Republicans as white nationalists. That's not true, we got a lot of great people in the military that are MAGAs -- that's what I was talking about."
In a Monday appearance on CNN, Tuberville said there could be conflicting views on white nationalism.
"My opinion of a white nationalist, if someone wants to call them white nationalist, to me is an American," he said.
But he also said, "If people think a white nationalist is a racist, I agree with that."
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told ABC News on Tuesday that while he did not see the Tuberville appearance on CNN, he made clear that white nationalism has no home in the Republican Party.
"I'm not sure exactly what he was trying to say there, but ... I would just say there's no place for white nationalism in our party and I think that's kind of full stop," Thune said, before Tuberville reversed himself.
"I just think when you're throwing around terms like that, you have to be careful and cautious," Thune said, adding, "We are not a racist country. We are not a racist party."
Thune did not commit to speaking to Tuberville directly about his comments, saying it was possible the Alabama lawmaker said "probably something different than how it perhaps is being interpreted."
"Hopefully we'll get a better understanding of what it was he was trying to communicate," Thune said. "But again, I just would say emphatically there's no place for that in the party."
Asked about Schumer's call for Tuberville to apologize, Thune said that was about politics: "It's playing right into Schumer's wheelhouse."
Tuberville, asked about Schumer, told reporters: "He needs to apologize."
On Tuesday afternoon, at his weekly press conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked to weigh in on Tuberville and said, "White supremacy is simply unacceptable in the military and in our home country."
McConnell was not asked to respond to Tuberville's ongoing hold on military nominees, though he has said in the past that he opposes Tuberville's approach.