Donald Trump ignited a new controversy Tuesday when he appeared to suggest that gun owners could stop Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, stepping on his latest attempt to right his foundering campaign.
The appearance at a rally in Wilmington, N.C., renewed Republican fears that Trump can’t be prevented from sabotaging himself. The GOP’s nominee told rally attendees that if Clinton is elected and is able to pick Supreme Court judges, there’s “nothing you can do, folks.” He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.”
The remark referencing the constitutional right to bear arms, drew swift and bipartisan condemnation. Michael Hayden, former CIA director under President George W. Bush and one of 50 national security experts who signed a letter opposing Trump, told CNN that “if anybody else had said this, they’d be out in the parking lot in a police wagon being questioned by the Secret Service.”
In fact, the Secret Service tweeted: “The Secret Service is aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon.”
Trump later told Fox News Channel’s Hannity that he was merely encouraging the Second Amendment supporters to vote: “This is a tremendous political movement” and “there can be no other interpretation.
“Nobody in that room thought anything other than what you just said. ... I mean, give me a break.”
Steve Duprey, former New Hampshire Republican State Committee chairman and a current GOP committeeman, called Trump’s remarks inappropriate.
“Donald Trump is known for making his provocative, off-the-cuff statements, but it is completely inappropriate to even suggest that supporters of the Second Amendment would somehow use the right to bear arms to influence or react in any way to any nomination for any position. There are some things you should not even joke about,” Duprey said.
The worry for Republicans is that Trump’s penchant for the controversial could help cement the gap between him and Clinton in recent polls. The remarks come just a day after Trump attempted to right his campaign, delivering a sober, scripted speech on the economy — and sticking to the teleprompters, even as protesters interrupted him.
At a focus group Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio, composed of 10 suburban women, a sought-after voting bloc in a key state this election, one undecided participant said that perhaps she was hearing Trump’s comment wrong, but, “It sounds like he’s basically saying, ‘Take her out.’ ”
Trump’s behavior since the party’s convention in July has quickened the drip-drip-drip of Republicans in recent days to publicly withhold their support. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declared in a Washington Post piece Tuesday that she won’t vote for him.
“I don’t understand it. Why can’t he stop saying stupid things?” said James Harris, a Missouri Republican political strategist. “He needs to very quickly get his act together.”
Harris added: “It can’t always be, ‘Oh, crap, Donald Trump said’ and then fill in the blank.”
It can’t always be, ‘Oh, crap, Donald Trump said’ and then fill in the blank.
James Harris, Missouri Republican strategist
Indeed, Democratic groups on Tuesday used Trump’s comments to attack Republicans. Progress NC Action, for example, pushed North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory to disavow Trump’s comments and rescind his endorsement of the New York real-estate mogul.
“No public official should support a candidate who jokes about assassination of his political rivals, and if the governor has any respect for his office or his state he should immediately rescind his support for Donald Trump,” Gerrick Brenner, Progress NC Action’s executive director said in a statement.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the leading gun control advocates on Capitol Hill, cautioned against treating Trump’s remarks as a “political misstep.”
“It’s an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis,” he said via Twitter.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the center-right American Enterprise Institute, called Trump’s comments “a reckless statement from a reckless maniac.”
“If he says he’s just joking, just look at what happens when a person boards a plane and jokes ‘I have a bomb,’ ” Ornstein said.
Trump’s campaign quickly issued a statement after Trump’s rally, blaming the press and insisting that Trump was talking about motivating voters on Election Day in November – although his remarks clearly referenced Clinton’s power to pick Supreme Court justices if elected president.
“It’s called the power of unification – Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” Trump adviser Jason Miller said in the statement. “And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook didn’t take Trump’s comments as a get-out-the-vote message.
“This is simple – what Trump is saying is dangerous,” Mook said in a statement. “A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”
Trump, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, re-tweeted the gun rights’ group, which said Trump “is right.”
In another tweet, the NRA sided with Trump’s campaign statement.
At a later rally in Fayetteville, Trump surrogate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Trump was misunderstood by a press that’s “in the tank” for Hillary Clinton.
“What he meant was you have the power to vote against her,” Giuliani said of Trump’s remarks. “Because you are American.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last name.