GOP lead­ers, can­di­dates fire on Trump

Harshly crit­i­cized front-run­ner re­fuses to apol­o­gize

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - ‘NOT A WAR HERO,’ HE SAYS OF MCCAIN BY PHILIP RUCKER

AMES, IOWA — Don­ald Trump, the celebrity busi­ness­man who has rock­eted to the front of the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial race, flip­pantly be­lit­tled Sen. John McCain’s war ser­vice here Satur­day, invit­ing a tor­rent of crit­i­cism from party lead­ers and other can­di­dates.

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of McCain at a sum­mit of 3,000 so­cially con­ser­va­tive ac­tivists. He con­tin­ued, sar­cas­ti­cally, “He’s a war hero be­cause he was cap­tured. I like peo­ple that weren’t cap­tured.”

For the past month, Repub­li­can lead­ers have cringed pri­vately at Trump’s in­flam­ma­tory com­ments about un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants from Mexico and have been aghast at his sum­mer surge to the top of the polls. But they have been re­luc­tant or afraid to con­demn a can­di­date whose out­bursts have proven both brash and un­pre­dictable.

That dy­namic changed sud­denly Satur­day. Within an hour of Trump’s slam on the Ari­zona sen­a­tor and 2008 GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, the flood­gates opened.

For­mer Texas gover­nor Rick Perry, him­self a sub­ject of re­cent at­tacks from the real es­tate mogul and re­al­ity tele­vi­sion star, is­sued a state­ment say­ing that Trump was “un­fit” to serve as the com­man­der-in-chief and call­ing on him to “im­me­di­ately with­draw.”

“As an in­di­vid­ual who has worn the uni­form of this coun­try, I was

highly of­fended by what Don­ald Trump said about John McCain and his years of sac­ri­fice in a dirty, dingy, ter­ri­ble prison in North Viet­nam,” Perry said later from the stage in Ames, where 10 can­di­dates ad­dressed the Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Sum­mit.

For­mer Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush tweeted, “Enough with the slan­der­ous at­tacks.” Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker said Trump should apol­o­gize to McCain and “all the other men and women who have worn the uni­form” — and then re­peated his con­dem­na­tion Satur­day night at the Ames sum­mit. And Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) tweeted that pris­on­ers of war “de­serve much bet­ter than to have their ser­vice ques­tioned by the of­fen­sive rant­ings of Don­ald Trump.” Mean­while, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tweeted, “Sen­a­tor John McCain is an Amer­i­can Hero. Pe­riod. Stop.”

But Trump, who has not served in the mil­i­tary and re­ceived a se­ries of draft de­fer­ments dur­ing the Viet­nam War, re­fused to apol­o­gize. He later told re­porters that McCain — the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee chair­man, who over­sees the De­fense Depart­ment, the Navy and Air Force — “doesn’t do any­thing” in the Se­nate to help vet­er­ans.

As of late Satur­day, McCain had not pub­licly re­sponded. But at the Iowa event, Sen. Lind­sey O. Graham (S.C.)— one of his clos­est friends, who is run­ning for the GOP nom­i­na­tion — said of Trump: “You’re fired.”

Repub­li­can lead­ers seized an op­por­tu­nity to dis­avow what they saw as an out­ra­geous at­tack against McCain — one of the coun­try’s most distin­guished POWs and the re­cip­i­ent of the Sil­ver Star, the coun­try’s third­high­est award for valor. They also sought to push Trump from se­ri­ous con­tention for the nom­i­na­tion and to rel­e­gate his sup­port to the far-right fringe.

Immigration is an ex­plo­sive is­sue within the Repub­li­can elec­torate, so party lead­ers and some other can­di­dates were ret­i­cent to di­rectly con­front Trump over his call­ing un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­cans cross­ing the bor­der into the United States drug deal­ers, crim­i­nals and rapists. Repub­li­cans are con­cerned that if they can’t make in­roads into the His­panic vote, they will be in se­ri­ous trou­ble in na­tional elec­tions.

But GOP lead­ers are afraid to alien­ate Trump’s core con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers who staunchly op­pose immigration re­form, and they worry about an­ger­ing Trump so much that, if he does not win the GOP nom­i­na­tion, he will pur­sue an in­de­pen­dent run in the gen­eral elec­tion. Trump again on Satur­day said that he would not rule out a third-party run.

But, by be­lit­tling McCain, Trump gave more main­stream Repub­li­cans an open­ing to go af­ter him from po­lit­i­cally safe ground. Se­nior Repub­li­can strate­gists said this marked a turn­ing point in the race, with other can­di­dates and the party it­self now em­bold­ened to hold Trump ac­count­able for the things he says and be­lieves.

McCain was shot down over North Viet­nam in 1967 and suf­fered a bro­ken leg and two bro­ken arms while eject­ing from his fighter jet. He was taken pris­oner and re­ceived lit­tle med­i­cal treat­ment for his wounds, in­stead en­dur­ing al­most daily beat­ings and in­ter­ro­ga­tions by his guards. He lost 50 pounds in 5 1/2 years of cap­tiv­ity and spent much of it in soli­tary con­fine­ment in a win­dow­less room. His in­juries re­main vis­i­ble four decades later: He still walks with a slight limp and still can­not raise his arms above his shoul­ders.

The Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, which must stay neu­tral through the pri­maries, took the rare step of re­spond­ing to a can­di­date’s state­ment on the cam­paign trail.

“Sen­a­tor McCain is an Amer­i­can hero be­cause he served his coun­try and sac­ri­ficed more than most can imag­ine. Pe­riod,” Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strate­gist and com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, said in a state­ment. “There is no place in our party or our coun­try for com­ments that dis­par­age those who have served hon­or­ably.”

And Mitt Rom­ney, the 2012 nom­i­nee who now sees him­self as a GOP el­der states­man, weighed in by tweet­ing that the dif­fer­ence be­tween Trump and McCain is that “Trump shot him­self down. McCain and Amer­i­can vet­er­ans are true he­roes.”

Trump fired back on Twit­ter: “Why would any­body lis­ten to @Mit­tRom­ney? He lost an elec­tion that should have easily been won against Obama. By the way, so did John McCain!”

Vet­er­ans lead­ers also dis­avowed the com­ments. “Trump’s asi­nine com­ments about Sen­a­tor McCain’s ser­vice are an in­sult to ev­ery­one who has ever worn the uni­form — and to all Amer­i­cans,” said Paul Rieck­hoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica.

Not ev­ery Repub­li­can can­di­date piled on, how­ever. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), who has been per­haps the loud­est de­fender of Trump’s re­marks about im­mi­grants and met pri­vately with him a few days ago at Trump Tower in New York, re­fused to con­demn Trump.

Cruz said that he con­sid­ers McCain “an Amer­i­can war hero,” but that he would not crit­i­cize another Repub­li­can can­di­date, in­clud­ing Trump.

“I rec­og­nize that folks in the press love to see Repub­li­can-on-Repub­li­can vi­o­lence, so you want me to say some­thing bad about Don­ald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about any­one else,” Cruz told re­porters here. “I’m not go­ing to do it. John McCain is a friend of mine. . . . And Don­ald Trump is a friend of mine.”

Trump has struck a chord with Repub­li­can vot­ers with his di­rect as­sault on a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem he de­cries as cor­rupt and run by “in­com­pe­tent peo­ple.” From New Hamp­shire to Arkansas to Ne­vada, he has promised to re­build the coun­try. As he said in Ames, “Our coun­try’s go­ing to hell.”

Trump made his “war hero” re­mark af­ter sev­eral days of pub­licly feud­ing with McCain. Af­ter Trump ral­lied some 5,000 sup­port­ers in Phoenix with an an­gry, anti-illegal immigration speech, McCain said Trump had “fired up the cra­zies.”

Trump said he was per­son­ally of­fended by McCain’s ref­er­ence to his sup­port­ers as “cra­zies” and un­leashed a tor­rent of at­tacks on the se­nior sen­a­tor. Trump tweeted that McCain was a “dummy” for fin­ish­ing at the bot­tom of his class at the Naval Academy and called on Ari­zona con­ser­va­tives to wage a pri­mary chal­lenge against him when he faces re­elec­tion next year.

On Satur­day in Ames, Trump said he had once con­sid­ered McCain a friend— he claimed to have raised $1 mil­lion for McCain’s 2008 cam­paign — but turned on him af­ter he lost.

“He let us down,” Trump said. “I never liked him as much af­ter that be­cause I don’t like losers.”

Af­ter ex­it­ing the stage, Trump faced re­porters for a com­bat­ive, 18-minute news con­fer­ence in which he stood by his com­ments.

Trump said he con­sid­ers pris­on­ers of war to be he­roes — although he called Sgt. Robert “Bowe” Bergdahl, who was held cap­tive in Afghanistan, an ex­cep­tion — but ac­cused McCain of do­ing lit­tle to help vet­er­ans in the Se­nate.

“John McCain talks a lot, but he doesn’t do any­thing,” Trump said. “I don’t like the job that John McCain is do­ing in the Se­nate be­cause he’s not tak­ing care of our vet­er­ans. . . . I’m with the vet­er­ans all the time. Some of these peo­ple wait four or five days just to see a doc­tor. They sit in a re­cep­tion room, which is dirty and filthy and dis­gust­ing.”

Trump grew hot and ag­i­tated by sharp ques­tion­ing from re­porters. Asked if he had read McCain’s ac­counts of his time in cap­tiv­ity be­fore ques­tion­ing his war ser­vice, Trump replied, “It’s ir­rel­e­vant.”

Trump added, “I like the peo­ple that don’t get cap­tured, and I re­spect the peo­ple that do get cap­tured.” But he would not di­rectly an­swer ques­tions about McCain. He snapped at one per­sis­tent re­porter: “Go back to be­ing a pun­dit.”

Trump did not serve in Viet­nam be­cause of sev­eral stu­dent de­fer­ments and a med­i­cal de­fer­ment. He told re­porters that he had a bone spur in his foot, but did not re­call which foot had been in­jured.

“I was not a big fan of the Viet­nam War,” Trump said. “I wasn’t a pro­tester, but the Viet­nam War was a dis­as­ter for our coun­try. What did we get out of the Viet­nam War other than death? We got noth­ing.”

Still, Trump has taken credit on the cam­paign trail for memo­ri­al­iz­ing vet­er­ans.

“I did the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans me­mo­rial in New York,” Trump told vot­ers last week in La­co­nia, N.H. “You know I was re­spon­si­ble for that.”

DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Don­ald Trump pauses Satur­day dur­ing in­flam­ma­tory com­ments.

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