Donald Trump roiled his tumultuous campaign once again Tuesday by suggesting supporters of gun rights could take action to stop Hillary Clinton from appointing judges as president, a remark that critics said hinted at the possibility of violence.
Trump often makes comments that can be interpreted with both benign and malignant connotations. Ambiguous statements that can be read as incitements or appeals to prejudice have been a core part of his rhetoric.
His remarks Tuesday at a campaign event in Wilmington, N.C., appeared an extreme example, although his campaign rushed out a statement blaming the media for suggesting he had urged attacks on his Democratic rival or on federal judges.
“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the 2nd Amendment,” Trump said, referring to the constitutional protection of the right to bear arms. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the 2nd Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
As criticism of the remark surged, advisors to the Republican presidential nominee said that he had only urged gun-rights supporters to unite behind his campaign.
“This is a strong, powerful movement — the 2nd Amendment,” Trump told Fox News.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who introduced Trump at a campaign rally later Tuesday in Fayetteville, N.C., said suggestions that the candidate had been encouraging violence were corrupt efforts by Clinton and her supporters to hurt Trump’s image.
“It proves that most of the press is in the tank for Hillary Clinton,” Giuliani said. “They will buy any lie, any distortion, any spin that the Clintons put out.”
Even for an unconventional candidate who takes pride in breaching political protocol, Trump’s comment marked an extraordinary turn. The fact that it could be interpreted as condoning violence against a presidential nominee broke a strict taboo in American politics.
Notably, no prominent elected Republicans stepped forward to defend him.
"It sounds like just a joke gone bad,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who has had a tense relationship with Trump, told reporters after he won his GOP primary in Wisconsin. “I hope he clears it up very quickly. You should never joke about something like that."
The controversy came at a difficult time for Trump. His support has plummeted in recent polls among key voter groups, easing the way for defections by senior Republicans.
In an effort to stem the damage, Trump gave an economic policy speech Monday in Detroit that aides hoped would reboot his presidential campaign after more than a week of self-inflicted troubles.
But he ran into fresh resistance when 50 former top Republican national security officials released a letter vowing not to vote for Trump, arguing that his lack of self-control and erratic temperament would endanger the nation if he were commander in chief.
Susan Collins of Maine became the fifth GOP senator to publicly withhold support from Trump, writing a lengthy opinion column that denounced his intemperate language as a “complete disregard for human decency.”
Whatever his intentions, Trump’s remarks on the 2nd Amendment seemed to reinforce that image. They eclipsed whatever positive attention his campaign gained from his economic proposals.
For nervous Republicans, they served as a reminder of how Trump struggles to keep the focus on his criticisms of Clinton rather than on his own temperament.
Democrats seized on the remark to reinforce a key theme of Clinton’s campaign — that Trump is dangerously unstable and cannot be trusted with the presidency.
“A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement.
Other Democrats were more pointed.
“Don’t treat this as a political misstep,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, who has called for stiffer gun laws, wrote on Twitter. “It’s an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis.”
Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, herself a victim of gun violence, warned that Trump’s words “may provide inspiration or permission for those bent on bloodshed.”
Democratic Senate candidates rushed out statements demanding that their opponents withdraw support for Trump.
Some Republicans also criticized the GOP nominee.
Michael Steel, who was a top advisor to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker John Boehner, said a president should never condone violence, apart from military protection of the United States.
“The constant violent, brutish talk from Donald Trump,” Steel said, “is unworthy of the office he seeks.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Secret Service said the agency was aware of Trump’s remark, but declined to comment further.
Political violence has long been an undercurrent of Trump’s campaign. During the primaries, he openly endorsed retaliation against protesters who disrupted his rallies, many of whom accused him of racism.
At one Las Vegas rally, Trump pined for “the old days” when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” At another, when a heckler was ejected, Trump told the crowd, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
In Iowa, Trump urged an audience to “knock the crap out of” anyone who might toss a tomato at him. He offered to pay the legal fees of a man arrested for slugging a protester in the face at a March rally in Fayetteville. Trump praised another supporter who punched a demonstrator at a rally in Tucson.
In Chicago, a near-riot broke out as protesters and Trump supporters took swings at one another at a rally that Trump was forced to cancel. In California, violence erupted outside Trump rallies in Costa Mesa, Burlingame and San Jose.
At the GOP convention last month in Cleveland, New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Trump advisor on veterans issues, said Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason,” prompting a Secret Service investigation, according to ABC News. Trump called out to Baldasaro at a rally last weekend in New Hampshire, saying he’d been a “great” supporter.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Michael A. Memoli in Edgartown, Mass., contributed to this report.
8:30 p.m.: This report has been updated with comments from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.
The first version of this article was posted at 5:40 p.m.