The controversy over his jibes at the Muslim parents of a soldier killed in action continued to overshadow Donald Trump’s campaign Monday as he struggled to prevent broader defections among nervous Republicans after days of self-induced trouble.
Party leaders worried that Trump’s verbal assault on two non-politicians would hurt his standing with voters more profoundly than did his earlier attacks on fellow candidates and rivals. Several upbraided their nominee as they worked to prevent Trump’s latest imbroglio from consuming the party’s candidates in other races.
Arizona Sen. John McCain issued an emotional rebuke of Trump but stopped short of pulling his endorsement, following in the steps of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
One high-profile Florida Republican, a mainstay in campaigns for more than two decades, announced that she had quit the party and that she would vote for Hillary Clinton if the race in her crucial state seemed close.
Trump used an audience in Ohio, another must-win state for him, to try to symbolically turn the page. After a morning in which he had tweeted another accusation about the father of the Muslim U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq — Khizr Khan had “viciously attacked” him, he said — Trump did not mention the family of Humayun Khan or the four-day feud he had pursued.
But he delved into another distracting issue, relitigating an argument over remarks he had made about Russia and its behavior toward Ukraine, comments that had unnerved GOP foreign policy experts.
The threat to Trump’s campaign comes largely in its timing. Fewer than 100 days remain before the general election, putting the campaigns in a period in which stumbles become more dangerous because there is less time to craft a recovery.
As important, any time taken to try to clean up campaign messes pulls attention away from issues with greater political upside. Only when he got to Columbus, Ohio, for example, did Trump mention the meager economic growth figures released last week; any emphasis on them had been obliterated by the feud between Trump and the Khan family.
Likewise, Trump did not mention a fresh Clinton controversy stemming from her remarks in a Sunday Fox News interview. She told interviewer Chris Wallace that FBI Director James Comey had said she had been “truthful” in discussing her use of a private email server while secretary of State, an overstatement of Comey’s actual remarks.
Trump’s political power has come from a potential appeal beyond partisan lines. Now the reverse is happening, as criticism of him crosses party lines: The Veterans of Foreign Wars, a 1.7 million-member group generally allied with conservative causes and Republican candidates, denounced him Monday.
The VFW’s national commander, Brian Duffy, released a statement saying the group “would not tolerate” further insult to a Gold Star family — the designation given to those who have lost a family member in service to the nation.
“There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of word-smithing can repair once crossed,” he said. “Giving one’s life to nation is the greatest sacrifice, followed closely by all Gold Star families, who have a right to make their voices heard.”
For Trump, the danger is less that he will lose his committed backers than that he will narrow his ability to attract new ones. Many of Trump’s supporters at the Columbus event said that they continued to back him regardless of the comments about the slain Army captain — though they wished he would not have made his remarks precisely as he had.
“Is he gonna say something stupid? He’s human. He’s gonna say something stupid all the time,” said David Haskins, a 58-year-old carpenter and one of roughly 1,000 Trump supporters at the event.
None of that would dampen support for Trump, Haskins said, because Americans are “aware and awake” to the failings of the political system and veteran politicians like Clinton.
But Trump’s supporters have already weathered controversies over his treatment of women, minorities and the disabled, among others. More troubling to Trump and other Republicans are defections like those of Sally Bradshaw, a Republican power in Florida for a generation.
She told CNN that she had abandoned her party registration and become an independent — a decision that she said was “reinforced” by the way Trump “belittled” the mother of a fallen soldier for not speaking along with her husband at the Democratic convention. Ghazala Khan has since said she was still too upset by memory of her son’s death to speak at the time.
"As much as I don't want another four years of Obama's policies, I can't look my children in the eye and tell them I voted for Donald Trump," Bradshaw said.
Her departure came as a symbolic slamming of the door on the image the Republican Party had wanted to put forth in this election.
Bradshaw was one of the authors of an extensive report authorized by party Chairman Reince Priebus after the 2012 defeat of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The report implored Republicans to reach out in 2016 to women, Latinos and young people — groups that if anything have distanced themselves further from the party during Trump’s rise.
McCain, in issuing his denunciation of Trump’s comments about the Khan family, spoke to Republican fears that the presidential nominee’s problems would spread.
"I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement," McCain wrote in a statement. "I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
Several polls released Monday showed that Clinton’s support has grown in recent days, although how much can be directly attributed to Khan’s convention speech and the subsequent controversy is unknown. Overall, in surveys from CNN and CBS, Clinton now has leads of 9 and 7 points, respectively, over Trump, erasing gains he had made after the Republican convention.
In a Gallup survey, 45% of respondents said the Democratic convention had made them more likely to vote for Clinton, compared with 41% who said they were less likely. In the same survey, 51% of respondents said the Republican convention made them less likely to vote for Trump, while 36% said it made them more likely to vote for him.
The 2016 race has been notable to this point by the sheer unpopularity of the candidates; neither Trump nor Clinton enjoys a positive favorability rating. That has left both with a pocket of support large enough to make them the nominee but too small to win the election.
The fear among Republicans after Clinton’s well-produced convention was that she would take a lead and never give it up. Democrats worked Monday to create the imagery of momentum in three parts.
President Obama, speaking in Atlanta to the Disabled American Veterans, smacked Trump for “trash-talking America’s military and troops.” He referred to his introduction at the Democratic convention by a Gold Star mother.
Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, speaking in his hometown of Richmond, Va., listed the groups Trump has maligned.
“And just remember, whoever’s the victim this week, it could be you next week,” the Virginia senator said.
And Clinton appeared in Omaha, where billionaire Warren Buffett — a well-known symbol of the business acumen Trump touts for himself — introduced her and challenged the Republican to a joint release of their tax returns.
Trump was by himself in Columbus, blaming the fire marshal for the relatively small crowd that greeted him, and trying to clean up messes he’d made before heading to another state, Pennsylvania, where he faced an uphill struggle even before the events of the last few days.