In news that will surprise no one, the New York Times reported on Sunday that Donald Trump has no team “plotting his long-term message,” and was speaking entirely off the cuff when he called Senator John McCain’s status as a war hero into question on Saturday. As the controversy dominated the political discussion this weekend, Trump backtracked, claiming his remarks were misconstrued and he has no reason to apologize — though he insists McCain has “done very little for the veterans.” Trump’s point was a bit muddled, so on Sunday he penned a USA Today op-ed to organize his thoughts on why McCain is the absolute worst.
Trump doesn’t specifically address whether McCain, who spent more than five years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam, is a war hero, but he claims journalist Sharyl Attkisson has proven that “the news media are distorting my words.” (PolitiFact say that’s “mostly false.”) He explains his real point is that “John McCain the politician has made America less safe, sent our brave soldiers into wrong-headed foreign adventures, covered up for President Obama with the VA scandal and has spent most of his time in the Senate pushing amnesty.” (By taking various hawkish foreign-policy positions, spearheading the successful effort to send President Obama a bipartisan VA reform bill, and fighting for immigration reform.)
McCain went on Morning Joe to respond to Trump’s insult (“He’s not a war hero”) on Monday morning. When asked if he thought he deserved an apology from the mogul, McCain said, “No, I don’t think so.”
However, that didn’t mean he thought Trump was completely off the hook. “I think he may owe an apology to the families of those who have sacrificed in conflict and those who have undergone the prison experience in serving their country.”
“For me to look back in anger at anyone is nonproductive,” he added. “And our country was divided in an almost unprecedented fashion during the Vietnam War, and when I came home I was shocked. So I’ve worked ever since to try to heal those wounds.”
However, given McCain’s low opinion of Trump before this controversy even happened, it doesn’t seem entirely surprising that the senator was unable to muster much outrage or disappointment over it. Don’t forget, this whole thing started after McCain told The New Yorker that the presidential contender had “fired up the crazies.”
While he did not serve, Trump explained he has a “well-documented” history of supporting veterans, which basically consists of pushing to construct the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial, serving as the grand marshal of a massive Veterans Day parade in 1995, and contributing large sums of money to both causes. He also took a moment to lash out at his fellow Republican presidential candidates:
A number of my competitors for the Republican nomination have no business running for president. I do not need to be lectured by any of them. Many are failed politicians or people who would be unable to succeed in the private sector. Some, however, I have great respect for.
Trump did not say who falls into the latter category, but presumably he wasn’t referring to Senator Lindsey Graham, who called the remark “disqualifying,” or former Texas governor Rick Perry, who issued a statement calling for Trump to exit the race:
Donald Trump should apologize immediately for attacking Senator McCain and all veterans who have protected and served our country. As a veteran and an American, I respect Sen. McCain because he volunteered to serve his country. I cannot say the same of Mr. Trump. His comments have reached a new low in American politics. His attack on veterans make him unfit to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and he should immediately withdraw from the race for President.
Graham and McCain are close friends, and Perry has to make a headline-grabbing move in the next few weeks if he wants a spot on the debate stage, but plenty of other GOP candidates seized the opportunity to attack the man single-handedly ruining their carefully laid plans.
Some top-tier candidates followed up their Twitter condemnations by bashing Trump in interviews on Sunday. Senator Marco Rubio told CNN, “It’s not just absurd, it’s offensive. It’s ridiculous. And I do think it’s a disqualifier as commander-in-chief.”
In an NBC News interview, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker said Trump “clearly needs to apologize,” and called on others to condemn him as well, saying, “I think more people need to push him and not just candidates or elected officials, I think more people from across America, including some of those that maybe up until now have been supporters of his.” (Here’s an idea: Maybe they’d like to check out a candidate who only liberals and union members find deeply offensive.)
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who might have the most to gain from Trump’s candidacy, quickly put together a new web ad that manages to link President Obama to Trump’s outrageous comments (and make the case that Bush is a great hugger). “We need to stop separating ourselves by race and ethnicity and income,” Bush says. “We need to focus on the things that tie us together. And whether it’s Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong.”
So who are these non-failures that Trump has “great respect for”? By process of elimination, he must be referring to pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. Though Trump has quickly ruined Carson’s years-long effort to position himself as 2016’s nuttiest candidate, when asked about the McCain remark following his own speech at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, the good doctor refused to pounce. “I think everybody has their niche – everybody has their voice,” Carson said. “I think we need to hear from everybody. And that’s the beauty of the process we have.”
Oops, scratch that. A few hours later Carson tweeted:
The Republican Party itself isn’t impressed with Trump either. “Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement this weekend. “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.” Since the GOP would like to be taken seriously this election cycle and have a chance at winning the White House, it probably wouldn’t mind if Trump had to drop out before the first debate on August 6, which he will almost certainly qualify for unless his strong poll numbers plummet in the next week.
What about Senator Ted Cruz, who defended Trump’s attacks on Mexicans and met with the mogul just a few days ago? Well, if you skip past Cruz’s minute-long, weirdly dramatic tribute to McCain’s military service in the video below, you’ll see him refuse to sling mud at Trump, despite being pressed repeatedly by Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin. “I’m not going to engage in the media’s game of bashing another Republican candidate,” Cruz says.
Halperin suggests Cruz might be holding back because if/when Trump exits the race, he’d like to claim his “crazies” as his own. However, Cruz insists that as a general policy he does not “go into the gutter with personal attacks and impugning character” … even when the Republican in question dwells within the gutter and built a mansion down there with his name emblazoned on it.