The father of an Army captain who died a hero in Iraq looked incredulous.
Donald Trump had seemed to criticize his wife on national television, suggesting that her Muslim faith might be the reason she stayed silent during the couple’s high-profile appearance at the Democratic National Convention last week, when Khizr Khan criticized the GOP presidential nominee.
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Khan said his wife was simply too grief-stricken to speak that night. Then the father said something that may sum up Trump’s biggest challenge between now and November: “He had to take that shot at her.”
Trump has built an unlikely presidential campaign on his combative style and language. He can’t seem to resist taking a shot or responding to an attack, even when the political fight seems unwinnable.
That instinct arguably has served Trump well so far, allowing him to win a crowded Republican primary and stay competitive in national polls with Hillary Clinton.
But it has also caused him unneeded political wounds, playing into the Clinton campaign’s argument that he lacks the temperament to lead the country and sometimes stealing attention from Clinton’s own political liabilities.
The public feud with the Khans looks to stir up the biggest self-inflicted controversy since Trump criticized a federal judge in a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump repeatedly questioned the judge’s ability to be fair because his parents were born in Mexico.
The Khan flap may also linger because Trump’s words were directed at grieving parents whose son died while serving the United States, rather than the politicians he usually targets.
“It violates almost every hallmark of traditional politics, but I guess that’s Donald Trump,” said Reed Galen, a veteran Republican consultant who is not supporting Trump or Hillary Clinton. “The way to get to a guy like Trump — and the Hillary campaign is now finally understanding this — this is a guy who can’t let slights, major or minor, go by.”
Trump’s puzzling engagement with the Khans not only inspired an unusually pointed rebuke from Clinton on Sunday, it also sparked broad condemnation from many Republicans.
For much of the weekend, Trump found himself squaring off against the Khans, whose convention appearance was an emotional high point for many Democrats. During the last night of the convention, Khizr Khan, his wife, Ghazala, beside him, recounted the loss of their son, Humayun. Then he questioned Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., pulling out a pocket Constitution and asking whether Trump had even read the document.
Trump could have let the moment pass, or simply praised their sacrifice without confronting them, as other politicians have done when met by military families who have rendered the highest sacrifice.
Instead, Trump, in an ABC interview broadcast Sunday, said Khizr Khan looked like a “nice guy,” but he questioned why Ghazala Khan did not speak during the convention, saying “maybe she wasn't allowed to.”
He pushed back against Khizr Khan’s assertion that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country would have kept his son out. “He doesn't know that,” Trump said. Then the businessman, who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, said he too had made “sacrifices,” citing his hiring of “thousands and thousands of people.”
After the ABC transcript from the taped interview was released Saturday, Trump’s campaign attempted to correct course. In a statement released late Saturday, Trump called Humayun Khan “a hero to our country” and said “the real problem here are the radical Islamic terrorists who killed him.”
Yet he still could not resist keeping the fight alive.
“While I feel deeply for the loss of his son, Mr. Khan, who has never met me, has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things,” Trump added.
On Sunday, as the controversy festered, Trump complained on Twitter that “I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention.”
“Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!” he said.
The Khans proved formidable and sympathetic foes as they granted multiple rounds of nationally televised interviews. Ghazala Khan wrote an emotional essay Sunday for the Washington Post, recounting her 12 years of grief since her son died, her inability to enter a room where his picture is displayed because of the pain, and the fact that she could not even bring herself to clean out his closet.
"I don't think he knows the meaning of sacrifice, the meaning of the word,” Ghazala Khan said of Trump on ABC. “Because when I was standing there, all of America felt my pain. Without saying a single word. Everybody felt that pain, but I don’t know how he missed that.”
While trying to remain above the partisan swamp, they looked shaken yet defiant — casting Trump as someone who lacks a moral compass and the capability for empathy. They challenged Republican leaders to denounce Trump.
As the pressure simmered, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement of support for the Khans, saying he agreed “that a travel ban on all members of a religion is simply contrary to American values.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan also called out Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim travel and praised the “many Muslim Americans [who] have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Capt. Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”
Other Republicans were even more forceful.
“There's only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who lost to Trump in the primary and has withheld his endorsement, wrote on Twitter. “Capt. Khan is a hero. Together, we should pray for his family.” (Gold Stars are awarded to the family members of soldiers who die serving in the U.S. armed forces.)
Tim Miller, a former aide to Mitt Romney, wrote on Twitter that Trump’s words were a “grotesque slander of a dead soldier.” He contrasted them with George W. Bush’s response to an antiwar protest in 2005 by Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq.
“I grieve at every death,” an emotional Bush said at the height of the protest. “It breaks my heart to think about a family weeping over the loss of a loved one.”
Bush said he recognized and thought about the “sincere desire” of those who wanted to pull out of Iraq while laying out his case to keep troops there.
Clinton faced a similar question Sunday on Fox News. She was asked about the assertion by two parents who lost their sons in the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that Clinton had come to them on the day their bodies were returned to the United States and claimed their deaths were the result of an inflammatory video, rather than terrorism.
“My heart goes out to both of them,” she said, bemoaning their loss and praising them as “extraordinary men.”
“As other members of families who lost loved ones have said, that's not what they heard — I don't hold any ill feeling for someone who in that moment may not fully recall everything that was or wasn't said,” Clinton added.
Clinton spoke directly about the controversy later Sunday at a church in Ohio.
“Mr. Khan paid the ultimate sacrifice in his family, didn’t he? And what has he heard from Donald Trump?” Clinton said. “Nothing but insults, degrading comments about Muslims, a total misunderstanding of what made our country great — religious freedom, religious liberty.”
Clinton has made Trump’s reactive style central to her critique. "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons," she said during her convention speech.
Even in defending against that charge, Trump showed his instinct to counterpunch, something many of his supporters admire.
“She's a very dishonest person. I have one of the great temperaments,” he said on ABC. “I have a winning temperament. She has a bad temperament. She's weak. We need a strong temperament.”
Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, blamed the controversy on Clinton, a tactic he has used after previous blowups.
“This is the Clinton narrative,” Manafort said on NBC, when asked about Trump’s comments about Khan. “Mr. Trump, of course, feels sorry for what the Khan family has gone through.”
The controversy came just a few days after another headline-grabbing moment, when Trump on Wednesday effectively baited Russia to hack Clinton’s old email account to try to recover more than 30,000 emails she deleted from the private server she used when she was secretary of State.
“He’s going off down these rabbit trails,” said Ron Nehring, a former national spokesman for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and former chairman of the California Republican Party. “Every day that is spent on these manufactured non-issues is another day he is not training fire on Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities.”
Such controversies tend to overshadow issues that might otherwise gain broader attention, experts say, such as Friday’s disappointing economic growth figures.
During Sunday’s interview with ABC, for example, Trump tried to sidestep questions about his failure to release his tax returns and raised concerns about the timing of three upcoming presidential debates, complaining that two dates overlap with NFL games.
Times staff writer Chris Megerian in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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3:15 p.m.: The story was updated with additional reaction.
The story was originally published at 12:15 p.m.