Pence Tries to Calm Outrage as Trump Courts Controversy
As the controversy over Donald Trump’s critical comments about the family of fallen U.S. solider Captain Humayun Khan crescendoed over the weekend, there was one voice inside the campaign that tried to tamp it down: Mike Pence.
Pence, the Indiana governor who is still adjusting to his new role as Trump’s running mate, issued a statement in his own name that diverged from the Republican presidential nominee, saying the nation should honor Khan and his family. How those dueling interpretations came about provides a window into the two men’s competing communications styles, and into Pence’s intent to maintain his longtime opposition to negative campaigning.
Pence’s senior aides began fielding calls about Trump’s comments on the Khan family immediately after ABC News first posted excerpts of its interview with the candidate Saturday evening, according to two of the governor’s advisers.
In that interview, Trump fired back at Khizr Khan, the fallen soldier’s father, for his assertion at the Democratic National Convention that the billionaire had “sacrificed nothing” for his country.
“I think I've made a lot of sacrifices,” Trump said. “I work very, very hard.”
Trump then criticized Captain Khan's mother, Ghazala Khan, who appeared on stage at the convention but did not speak.
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me,” Trump said.
Initially, Pence, 57, had wanted to wait and address the issue at a public forum, the two advisers said. But by Sunday morning, Trump’s ABC News interview had become the latest full-blown controversy for the unconventional candidate, and was dominating social media.
Pence’s inner circle was becoming increasingly worried that a non-response from Pence would fuel a narrative that Trump, 70, was trying to squash and quiet the governor, his advisers said.
Pence then crafted a statement, and his staffers reached out to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the senior advisers.
The Trump campaign didn’t change one word of the statement, Pence advisers and the Trump campaign confirmed.
“Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American,” Pence said in his statement.
“Captain Khan gave his life to defend our country in the global war on terror. Due to the disastrous decisions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a once stable Middle East has now been overrun by ISIS. This must not stand.”
In an interview Tuesday with WJLA television, however, Trump was asked if he regretted criticizing the Khan family.
“I don't regret anything,” he responded.
The episode was a graphic illustration of just how different Trump and Pence are in terms of political rhetoric. And it highlights the political tightrope Pence will have to walk in the 97 days remaining until Election Day.
Pence is spending the week campaigning and fundraising, and made two stops on Tuesday in Arizona, where he met with Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and former prisoner of war who released a sharply worded rebuke Monday of Trump’s statements against the Khan family.
“I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump's statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates,” McCain said in a statement.
On Tuesday, Trump appeared to take some measure of revenge on House Speaker Paul Ryan, who issued his own statement supporting the Khan family, as well as McCain, by refusing to endorse each in their respective Republican primaries.
“I’ve never been there with John McCain because I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets,” Trump told the Washington Post. “He has not done a good job for the vets and I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. So I’ve always had a difficult time with John for that reason, because our vets are not being treated properly. They’re not being treated fairly.”
Pence has fielded several calls from top Republican donors and political figures in recent days, easing their concerns about Trump’s comments in the aftermath of Khan’s speech.
“Mike’s tone and tenure is different than Mr. Trump, but that's also part of the reason he's on the ticket,” said Bob Grand, a prominent Indiana Republican donor and Pence confidant. “The Trump campaign has given Pence a lot of latitude.”
Grand said Pence has vouched frequently to donors and prominent Republicans about “the real Donald Trump.”
“If you’re a Republican and understand the issues, and those issues are important for you—then I think you ought to be on board,” Grand said.
Aides say that Trump and Pence talk multiple times daily. Trump phoned his running mate after Pence took a question from a military mom in Carson City, Nevada, to praise his handling of the tense situation, according to the aides. “Time and time again, Trump has disrespected our nation's armed forces and veterans. ... How do you handle this disrespect?” the woman asked.
The crowd booed the woman before Pence quieted them. “That's what freedom looks like and that's what freedom sounds like,” Pence told them, pointing to the woman.