Will Donald Trump’s feud with the Muslim family whose son died while serving in the U.S. military in Iraq be the “too much” moment that derails his presidential campaign?
Don’t bet on it, political damage control experts say.
Several say that Trump’s berating of Khizr and Ghazala Khan – the bereaved parents of the slain Army Capt. Humayun Khan – was offensive, beyond the pale, boorish, and a potential disqualifier for someone seeking to be commander-in-chief.
But they also say it’s business as usual for Trump, who belittled his competitors for the Republican presidential nomination, challenged the impartiality of a federal judge in a fraud case against him based on his Mexican heritage, called Sen. John McCain a “loser” for being captured during the Vietnam War, and patted himself on the back for being prescient about terrorist attacks in the wake of the massacre at an Orlando gay club.
“Having witnessed him commit so many death knell moments during the Republican primaries, I’m resistant to call this a death knell moment,” Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said of Trump’s comments about the Khans. “I’m just reluctant, as all pundits should be.”
I’m resistant to call this a death knell moment.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College, is equally reticent to say Trump’s battle with the Khans is the beginning of the end of his appeal to voters.
“I don’t know,” Madonna said. “You always end up with these situations where everything we said all year has been wrong.”
Still, there are signs that cracks are developing in Trump’s previously impregnable political armor now that he is appealing to an audience beyond Republican Party primary voters. It’s one thing to attack McCain, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it’s another thing to attack parents like the Khans, said Jeff Horwitt, a pollster for Hart Research Associates.
“These are private citizens who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Horwitt said.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which gave Trump a warmer reception than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at its convention in Charlotte last week, sharply condemned Trump’s remarks Monday, saying he was “out of bounds” to ridicule Ghazala Khan, a Gold Star mother, as the parents of those killed in combat are known. Trump questioned in an interview why Ghazala Khan had not spoken at the Democratic National Convention, as her husband did, implying that she wasn’t “allowed to.” She retorted in a Washington Post essay that her son’s death was too painful for her to talk about.
“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,” said VFW national commander Brian Duffy. “There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed.”
There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed.
VFW national commander Brian Duffy
Jeb Bush’s top political adviser said Monday she’s left the Republican Party to become an independent and may vote for Clinton.
“This is a time when country has to take priority over political parties. Donald Trump cannot be elected president,” Sally Bradshaw told CNN in an email.
She called Trump’s remarks on the Khans “despicable,” and said it “made me sick to my stomach.”
“Donald Trump belittled a woman who gave birth to a son who died fighting for the United States. If anything, that reinforced my decision to become an independent voter,” she said.
“Every family who loses a loved one in service to our country or who has a family member who serves in the military should be honored, regardless of their political views,” she added. “Vets and their family have more than earned the right to those views. Someone with the temperament to be president would understand and respect that.”
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who is in a closer-than-expected battle to defend his seat against Democratic challenger Jason Kander, an Afghan War veteran, was among the Republicans who criticized Trump’s remarks, but who stopped short of revoking their endorsement of the party’s presidential nominee.
“The Khans have made the greatest possible sacrifice for our country; they deserve to be heard and respected,” Blunt said in a statement on Monday.
The Khans’ appearance at last week’s Democratic National Convention, where Khizr Khan questioned whether Trump understands the U.S. Constitution, and the controversy afterward has put the couple in the spotlight.
They appeared Monday on CNN, NBC and MSNBC and on Voice of America. Khizr Khan was on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“This candidate amazes me,” Khizr Khan said on NBC. “His ignorance – he can get up and malign the entire nation, the religions, the communities, the minorities, the judges and yet (as) a private citizen in this political process . . . I cannot say what I feel? That proves the point, he has not read the Constitution of this country. Had he read that, his behavior would be different.”
Trump and his supporters, meanwhile, continued to criticize the Khans on Monday. Trump ally Roger Stone, in a tweet Sunday night, suggested that Khizr Khan is a “Muslim Brotherhood agent helping Hillary.”
Trump did not address the controversy during an appearance in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday.
But his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence, sought to create some breathing space from Trump, issuing a press release late Sunday that called Khan an “American hero” and that his family “like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American.”
The history of Trump’s campaign suggests the damage will be fleeting. Pundits and Washington’s political class have predicted Trump’s demise almost from the moment he descended down an escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” in his campaign announcement.
After Trump last summer disparaged Sen. John McCain’s military record, saying he wasn’t a war hero because the former Vietnam-era prisoner of war had been captured, strategists – and more than a few reporters – questioned whether Trump had crossed a line.
But McCain went on to endorse Trump and the controversy did little to blunt Trump’s momentum in the primaries. McCain himself sharply denounced Trump on Monday for his remarks about the Khans and called for him to “set the example for what our country can and should represent.” But he did not revoke his endorsement.
Following a series of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, in which Trump suggested the outcome would have been different if people had been armed, some strategists and pundits predicted that voters would give more “serious” candidates with government experience a second look.
They did not.
Indeed, after Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” following the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, California, his popularity went up in national opinion polls. And then he methodically dispatched his Republicans rivals in the primaries to capture the Republican nomination.