Donald Trump’s choice of words as he rallied Second Amendment advocates has roiled the presidential race at a time when the Republican has sought to reassure voters skeptical of his temperament.
Trump suggested Tuesday that “the Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton from enacting liberal policies that would be upheld by the Supreme Court justices she would nominate if elected president.
The comment came during a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, as Trump reiterated his claim that Clinton sought to abolish the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to bear arms.
“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump told his audience. “By the way, and if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know. But I'll tell you what—that will be a horrible day.”
While Clinton has proposed expanding background checks for those who purchase firearms, as well as a ban on semi-automatic weapon sales, she does not advocate repealing the Second Amendment.
Trump's phrasing drew a swift condemnation from the Clinton campaign.
“This is simple—what Trump is saying is dangerous. A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement that was also posted to Clinton's official Twitter account.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, flatly dismissed the Clinton campaign’s concerns, saying that Trump was urging Second Amendment advocates to participate in the election, according to several witnesses to an interview.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Secret Service director of communications Cathy Milhoan said the agency was “aware of the comments” made by the Republican presidential nominee.
Trump's campaign, perhaps sensing that a controversy was brewing, also released a statement.
“It’s called the power of unification—2nd Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power. And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said.
The National Rifle Association also weighed in on the controversy, supporting Trump.
“.@realDonaldTrump is right. If @HillaryClinton gets to pick her anti-#2A #SCOTUS judges, there’s nothing we can do. #NeverHillary,” the group wrote on its Twitter feed.
Debate raged over Trump's remarks for hours, with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeting, “.@realDonaldTrump makes death threats because he's a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.”
Later, at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was introducing Trump, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took aim at the media.
“They spin out that what he meant by that was, was that it was a joke and that they would kill her. To buy that, you have to be corrupt. If you said that to me, I'd say, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ... If he had meant what they're saying or suggesting, he would've reacted the way you just reacted,” Giuliani said. “It proves that most of the press is in the tank for Hillary Clinton.”
In a Tuesday night interview on Fox News' Hannity, Trump brushed aside the controversy.
“The NRA, as you know, endorsed me—they're terrific people,” Trump said. “Wayne [LaPierre] and Chris [Cox] and all the people over there and they tweeted out, basically they agree 100 percent with what I said. And there can be no other interpretation. Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break.”
The remarks by Trump may end up overshadowing a small storm gathering around the Clinton campaign over the presence at a campaign rally in Florida of the father of the suspect in the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June. Seddique Mateen was initially spotted in the crowd behind Clinton by a reporter for local television station WPTV who was covering the Clinton event Monday in Kissimmee.
After the report was broadcast it was highlighted by conservative groups and Trump supporters. The shooter in Orlando, identified as Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and expressed sympathies for jihadist groups.
“He was strategically placed,” Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson said of Mateen on CNN on Tuesday.
Clinton, campaigning Tuesday in Miami, ignored a shouted question about whether her staff should have been aware of his presence. A campaign official, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the rally was open to the public and Mateen had not been invited. The official said the campaign was not aware that he was there until afterward.
The view that Clinton favors repealing the Second Amendment gained traction when one of her policy advisers, Maya Harris, told Bloomberg Politics that the candidate believes that the Supreme Court's decision striking down a Washington, D.C., ban on handguns was “wrongly decided.” Harris said that Clinton saw the DC v. Heller decision as going too far, and would result in further gun safety measures being overturned. Harris also likened Trump's assertions that Clinton wants to overturn the Second Amendment as a “conspiracy theory.”
—With assistance from Kevin Cirilli, Justin Sink, and Jennifer Jacobs.