Trump ruffles GOP feathers over McCain 'war hero' comments

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. © Jim Young
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeated his comments that John McCain is “not a war hero.” Will the attack destroy his candidacy and the GOP's chances at the White House? Or will it be a boost to Trump’s meteoric rise in popularity?

On Saturday, the moderator of the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa described McCain, Arizona’s senior senator and a Vietnam veteran, as a “war hero.” Trump then responded: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump also called McCain a “loser” for not defeating then-Senator Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

"I supported McCain for president. He lost and let us down... I've never liked him as much after that,” he said. “I don’t like losers.”

The mainstream media and the Republican establishment jumped on the comments, saying that they showed Trump is not a viable option to lead the country.

GOP insiders told the Washington Post that Trump’s comments were “lethal,” a “complete cratering” of his support within the party and that he would become a “niche candidate.” Yet not all Republican strategists agreed with those assessments.

“This guy has tapped into a very virulent strain of the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party,” Phil Musser, an unaffiliated GOP strategist who finds Trump’s comments personally offensive, told the Post. “If he’s got a message that works for 15 percent of the people in the first five states, he’s a factor, and he’s a factor with delegates.”

Dustin Siggins, writing for the conservative website Hot Air, noted that “by attacking McCain as he did, Trump also disparaged anyone who has been captured in combat or in other arenas of warfare.”

Fellow Republican presidential candidate, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, agreed with Siggins’ sentiment, telling CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ that Trump’s comments made him unfit to serve as head of the US military.

"This is not just an insult to John McCain, who clearly is a war hero and a great man," Rubio said. "It's not just absurd. It's offensive. It's ridiculous. And I do think it is a disqualifier as commander-in-chief."

Other GOP candidates joined in the condemnation, including former Texas Governor Rick Perry, current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. But one competitor's voice has been noticeably absent: that of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Both Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and the Wall Street Journal called Cruz out for his silence.

“The Texas Senator must be hoping to inherit Trump voters once the casino magnate flames out, but he’s revealing his own lack of political character,” the Wall Street Journal wrote.

McCaskill went a step further in her tweet:

Even the White House weighed in on the controversy, stepping in to defend McCain.

Press secretary Josh Earnest noted that Obama has always expressed his "admiration and deep respect" for McCain's military service, even when they were battling for the presidency and expressing deep political differences. Yet “those debates have not reduced [Obama’s] appreciation for Senator McCain's remarkable service to his country," Earnest added.

Trump doubled down on his comments on Sunday, writing an editorial for USA Today. The Op-Ed focused on what McCain has done as a senator, rather than on whether he is a hero or not.

“Thanks to McCain and his Senate colleague Bernie Sanders, their legislation to cover up the VA scandal, in which 1,000+ veterans died waiting for medical care, made sure no one has been punished, charged, jailed, fined or held responsible,” Trump wrote. “McCain has abandoned our veterans. I will fight for them.”

I am not a fan of John McCain because he has done so little for our Veterans and he should know better than anybody what...

Posted by Donald J. Trump on Saturday, July 18, 2015

“The reality 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,” Trump added. “He would rather protect the Iraqi border than Arizona’s.”

However, USA Today’s editorial board, while accepting Trump’s piece, wrote one of their own in response, calling the billionaire businessman a “sideshow” with a “big mouth” who made a “low-class outburst.” The paper also defended McCain’s heroic bonafides, noting that, during his five years as a prisoner-of-war, the then-naval aviator withstood torture and more than two years of solitary confinement, was injured when he was shot down and that he refused to be released early from the infamous Hanoi Hilton because it would have put him ahead of POWs who were captured before he was.

In a phone interview on NBC’s ‘Today Show’ on Monday, Trump blasted the media for mischaracterizing his Saturday comments, insisting that he had said "four times" in his Iowa remarks that he respected those captured in war.

Yet McCain himself has refused to attack Trump for his comments. When asked on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ if Trump owes him an apology for his remarks, McCain responded: “No, I don’t think so. But 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.”

"I think the point here is that there are so many men and women who served and sacrificed ‒ and happened to be held prisoner ‒ and to denigrate in any way that service, I think, is offensive to veterans," he continued.

McCain added that he doesn’t see himself as a hero, but those he was imprisoned with are.

"When Mr. Trump says he prefers to be with people who are not captured, the great honor of my life was to be in the company of heroes," he said. “I’m not a hero.”

Whether in spite of or because of his repeated controversial statements, Trump has stolen the spotlight from more establishment Republican candidates. The real estate tycoon leads the crowded GOP presidential field with 57 percent of Republicans viewing him favorably, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, up from 49 percent in early July.