Trump's battle with the Khans: Will it cost him veterans' votes?

Donald Trump's comments drew rebukes from a group of 11 'Gold Star' families as well as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun was killed serving in the US Army, challenges Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to read his copy of the US Constitution at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Donald Trump’s ridicule of the bereaved mother of a fallen Muslim American soldier has drawn bipartisan rebuke. As Republicans leaders distance themselves from the comments of their presidential nominee, the strongest reproaches may have come from veterans and their families.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona issued public statements Sunday and Monday that criticized Mr. Trump, while 11 “Gold Star” families of fallen soldiers demanded Trump apologize to them.

Trump has said he merely responded to attacks by Khizr Khan, the father of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004; the GOP nominee also said that he was criticizing radical Islamic terrorism, not the Islamic faith. But Senator Graham, Senator McCain, and the “Gold Star” families indicated this time Trump might have gone too far.

"Your recent comments regarding the Khan family were repugnant and personally offensive to us," wrote the group of 11 "Gold Star" families, who have lost a family member in war. "We feel we must speak out and demand you apologize to the Khans, to all Gold Star families, and to all Americans for your offensive, and frankly anti-American comments."

The letter was published Monday on VoteVets.org, a website paid for through the VoteVets political-action committee (PAC). The PAC also demanded on July 27 that Republicans remove Trump from the ticket for his incitement of Russia to hack Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The clash between Trump and the Khans started Thursday when Khizr Khan disparaged Trump in an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention. He shared the story of his son – posthumously awarded a Bronze star and a Purple heart – and questioned whether Trump has ever read the US Constitution. “You have sacrificed nothing,” the Pakistani-born Mr. Khan said, as his wife, Ghazala Khan, stood quietly by his side.

Trump responded in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” that aired Sunday.

“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,” said Trump, implying Ms. Khan was forbidden from speaking because she is Muslim. Trump added he has sacrificed a lot, referring to his business and the creation of thousands of jobs.

Ms. Khan responded Sunday, saying she did not speak because talking about her son’s death remains difficult for her.

“Every day, whenever I pray, I have to pray for him, and I cry,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “The place that emptied will always be empty.”

Prominent Democrats and Republicans quickly rebuked Trump’s comments. Though House Speakers Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (D) of Kentucky didn’t name Trump, they criticized his proposed ban on foreign Muslims, which his campaign has softened since he first proposed it in December. Mrs. Clinton and Trump’s former Republican challengers soundly criticized his remarks. Even Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate, distanced himself from Trump’s comments. In a statement Sunday, Governor Pence said Capt. Humayun Khan is an “American hero” and his family “should be cherished by every American.”

But the most personal criticism came from the likes of veterans and bereaved families.

McCain, whom Trump previously dismissed as not a war hero because he was captured and held as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, issued a very personal statement.

McCain said his son also served in the Iraq War, and the McCains have been serving in the US military for hundreds of years.

"It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party," he said. "While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us."

"This is going to a place where we've never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen," Senator Graham said in a statement. "There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics – that you don't do – like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier even if they criticize you."

It remains to be seen how Trump’s now five-day war of words with the Khans will affect troops' and veterans' feelings toward him. In May, troops supported Trump over Clinton. But a poll from late July found troops favored Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson over both Trump and Clinton.  

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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