Donald Trump’s swipe at the heartbroken parents of a Muslim-American war hero killed in Iraq has sparked condemnation across party lines, prompting top Republicans in Congress to distance themselves from the GOP presidential nominee, and for Democrat Hillary Clinton to reassess her own tack with voters during a weekend bus tour across Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, may be tempted to see Trump’s tangles with the Khan family as a defining moment with 98 days left in the race. That's especially true on the heels of Trump’s latest controversial statements. In recent days, he has criticized John Allen, a top retired Marine general who backs Clinton; stated he wishes Russia success in hacking Clinton’s e-mails; and appeared to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine.
There are also many reasons why the Clinton and Trump campaigns believe these events may change nothing.
“I don’t know where the bottom is,” Clinton told reporters during a stop for milkshakes and pictures with voters on Sunday at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Ashland, Ohio. “It’s hard to imagine anyone who has ever run to be president of the United States saying any of what he’s said, and the accumulation of it all is just beyond my comprehension.”
Clinton put out a statement in support of the Khans and amended her stump speech midway through the bus tour to attack Trump for criticizing the Khans and Allen. She told the congregation of a black church in the Cleveland area on Sunday, “I do tremble before those who would scapegoat other Americans, who would insult people because of their religion, their ethnicity, their disability. It’s just not how I was raised. That’s not how I was taught in my church.”
But one Clinton campaign adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said Clinton stuck largely to a jobs-and-economy message because it is the biggest concern for Rust Belt voters, and because Trump is vulnerable when his business record is highlighted. Local news coverage focused more on the jobs message than the Khan story. The adviser said the Clinton campaign knows it cannot just run a negative campaign against Trump and has to talk about what Clinton would do as president.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, indicated in an interview Sunday that Trump does not see the Khan controversy as one that will change the course of the election. “Our campaign strategy is straightforward: To focus on this as a change election and to define Clinton as a third term for Obama,” he said. “She is the establishment. If we are successful in framing the election this way we will win.”
Turning to the 2004 death of Army Captain Humayun Khan, Manafort continued to take shots at Clinton.
“As far as Mr. Khan, we are sorry he and his family suffered,” he said. “The national issue is why did he die? The problem now is that with the growth of ISIS, more Americans are dying and the Clinton’s solutions to deal with ISIS is to do exactly what Obama is doing today. It’s nothing new.”
Clinton and Trump must now try to appeal to voters like Darren Gammell, 47, a pipefitter from Columbus, Ohio, who said he hasn’t yet decided whom to support in November. A lifelong Democrat, he said this year he switched sides and cast a vote in the Republican primary, for Trump.
He began to question his own plans after Trump’s speech and the general tenor of the Republican National Convention. “I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was depressing.” Trump’s remarks about Allen and the Khans in recent days have added greatly to his concerns, he said, calling them a “slap in the face” and an unseemly stance toward parents who are “hurting and brokenhearted.”
On Sunday, Gammell attended Clinton’s rally in Columbus to see if he could get his head around voting for her. But even after hearing her promise to bring jobs and infrastructure spending to Ohio, and listening to her critiques of Trump for his business practices, history of outsourcing, and treatment of the Khans, Gammell said he’s still “not sure” about Clinton “because of security, terrorism, Benghazi, her e-mails, her honesty.”
Trump prevailed in a 17-way primary this year despite the insulting statements he made toward women, Mexicans, Muslims, a Hispanic-American judge, and a disabled reporter, and in national and swing-state polls against Clinton so far he has remained within striking distance.
Meanwhile, the start of August marks a period when voters weary from back-to-back convention coverage may unplug from the news and politics for a while and turn to family vacations before children go back to school.
While families of fallen soldiers have traditionally been off-limits for presidents or presidential hopefuls to criticize, many American voters remain concerned or distrustful about Muslim immigrants, which has the potential to insulate, or even help, Trump with some swing-state voters, particularly in less diverse swaths of the country.
Khizr Khan, an immigration lawyer from Virginia, spoke during prime time on the final night of the Democratic National Convention last week, saying while his son was killed trying to protect the U.S., Trump had “sacrificed nothing.” He criticized Trump, a real-estate developer and TV personality, for looking to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America,” Khan said. “You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.”
Trump told ABC News in an interview that aired Sunday—and that was partially released a day earlier—that he had “made a lot of sacrifices” for the U.S. by employing “thousands and thousands of people.” He also suggested that the mother of Captain Khan didn’t speak alongside her husband in Philadelphia because she was forbidden to, as a Muslim.
The Khan family, “like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American,” Trump's running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, said in a statement Sunday night aimed at quelling the uproar Trump’s comments sparked.
As the Khans continued to make the media rounds on Monday morning—urging Trump to “join hands with good Muslims”—Clinton strategist Joel Benenson said on CNN that “Mr. Khan and his wife will play whatever role they choose to play.”
“Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same - Nice!” Trump tweeted in response to the parents’ interviews.
Trump last Friday also took on another critic from the Democratic convention: Allen, a retired four-star general. With Clinton as commander-in-chief, “our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be engaged in murder, or carry out other illegal activities,” Allen said in Philadelphia. Trump dismissed Allen, who led troops in Afghanistan and coordinated the international coalition fighting Islamic State, as a “failed general.”
Trump in his ABC interview also suggested residents of Crimea preferred to be part of Russia and that the U.S. should accept that, which conflicts with the U.S. and United Nations stances on the Russian annexation of Ukraine.
The Clinton adviser said the nominee and her team understood last Thursday that Khizr Khan had been one of the more powerful speakers of the convention. As the Clinton-Kaine bus tour kicked off on Friday, the adviser said the nominee ruminated about how the family's story was one of American immigrants who were committed to their new country and bound by a sense of duty, privilege, and sacrifice. The campaign watched as ABC News’ early release of some of Trump’s interview blew up on social media midday Saturday. They recognized it as an impactful moment, the aide said, but not necessarily a game-changing one in and of itself.
Some Republican advisers to the Trump-Pence ticket said the social-media and television furor over the weekend is an inside-the-Beltway controversy stirred by media with a liberal bias and won’t sway voters in the Rust Belt or Florida.
Others said Trump's gaffes may cut away at the foundation of his support, and talking about anything other than the economy, Obamacare, terrorist attacks, and Clinton scandals is a wasted day, but that they are unlikely to be the decisive factor.
Lawmakers such as Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a Vietnam war veteran who faces a re-election fight in Arizona this year, rushed to align themselves with the slain soldier’s family. “I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement,” McCain said in a news release Monday. “I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
However, McCain stopped short of rescinding his support for Trump. Another longtime Republican did take that step. Sally Bradshaw, an adviser to former Florida Governor and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, told CNN that she's switching her registration to independent and will vote for Clinton if the election is close in Florida.
"As much as I don't want another four years of Obama's policies, I can't look my children in the eye and tell them I voted for Donald Trump,'' she was quoted as saying by CNN.
Trump's ridicule of the family also drew condemnation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an influential advocacy group. “Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression,” Brian Duffy, the group's newly elected national commander, said in a statement. “There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed.”
Mississippi’s Republican national committeeman, Henry Barbour, said he doesn't know what the long-term affect of Trump's back-and-forth with Khan will be but that “it only hurt because the Khan family deserves our respect and gratitude even if one disagrees with their political support of Hillary.”
Trump pollster and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said in an interview Sunday that she isn't excusing or commenting on anything related to the Khans, but that the disparity in how the mainstream media covers the candidates is “embarrassing” in its favoritism of Clinton.
“Why was Pat Smith's grief minimized?” she said, a reference to the mother of one of the Americans killed in the attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, who spoke at the Republican National Convention and blames former Secretary of State Clinton. “Media cover this election as a referendum on Trump while voters see it as a referendum on Hillary. That won't change voters’ perspective.”
—With assistance from Ben Brody and Steven T. Dennis.