Washington (CNN)Donald Trump’s criticism about the Muslim parents of a slain American soldier has generated — once again — a backlash within his own party.
Just 100 days from the election, Trump has responded in his standard fashion — dig in, claim he’s being treated unfairly and attack back.
But the swift condemnation of Trump’s response raises questions about whether this controversy is different from the ones that came before it.
This time, attacks from the Republican presidential nominee on the parents of a soldier who died defending America have put new pressure on GOP leaders to decide whether they will continue to stand by him. Already, the party’s leaders in the House and the Senate have distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks, and other Republican figures are attacking their nominee forcefully.
“This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said in a statement. “There used to be some things that were sacred in American politics — that you don’t do — like criticizing the parents of a fallen soldier even if they criticize you.”
“If you’re going to be leader of the free world, you have to be able to accept criticism. Mr. Trump can’t,” Graham said. “The problem is, ‘unacceptable’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
The controversy is over Trump’s response to Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber in 2004. The Khans took the stage Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention, where Khizr Khan rejected Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States as unconstitutional, pulling a copy of the Constitution from his breast pocket and saying that Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one.” Trump has since responded by criticizing Ghazala Khan’s silence and suggesting she wasn’t allowed to speak.
The incident recalls Trump’s attack last year on Arizona Sen. John McCain. Trump said at the time that McCain is not a war hero because he was captured and imprisoned in Vietnam. Many had speculated the criticism would spark Trump’s decline in the GOP primary race — it did not.
But there are two key differences: Trump was not yet the GOP nominee and McCain — himself the 2008 GOP standard-bearer — is a long-time public figure with experience parrying on the presidential level. The Khans are not.
“This is so incredibly disrespectful of a family that endured the ultimate sacrifice for our country,” Jeb Bush, a Trump rival in the 2016 GOP primary, said on Twitter Sunday evening.
“There’s only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect,” tweeted Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who skipped the GOP convention in his state and has declined to endorse Trump. “Capt. Khan is a hero. Together, we should pray for his family.”
Kasich’s top strategist in his failed 2016 presidential campaign, John Weaver, tweeted a scathing attack on Trump’s handling of the Khan controversy, saying: “Trump’s slur against Captain Khan’s mother is, even for him, beyond the pale. He has NO redeeming qualities.”
Ryan, McConnell weigh in
And both Republican congressional leaders took issue with Trump, issuing statements Sunday that praised the Khan family and reaffirmed their opposition Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban.
“America’s greatness is built on the principles of liberty and preserved by the men and women who wear the uniform to defend it,” House Speaker Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said. “As I have said on numerous occasions, a religious test for entering our country is not reflective of these fundamental values. I reject it. Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”
“I’d like to hear his wife say something,” Trump told Dowd.
Then, he told Stephanopoulos: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me. But plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet. And it looked like she had nothing to say. A lot of people have said that.”
Ghazala Khan, Khizr Khan’s wife, hit Trump back hard herself in an op-ed in The Washington Post Sunday, saying she declined to speak because she was emotionally distraught — and suggested Trump lacks empathy if he fails to understand that decision.
“Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?” she wrote.
Trump calls Capt. Khan a ‘hero’
Responding to the backlash, Trump issued a statement Saturday praising Capt. Khan as a “hero” and saying the real problem is “radical Islamic terrorists who killed him.”
But in that statement, he again criticized the soldier’s father.
“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 said in the statement.
And Sunday morning, he again weighed in over Twitter.
“Captain Khan, killed 12 years ago, was a hero, but this is about RADICAL ISLAMIC TERROR and the weakness of our “leaders” to eradicate it!” Trump wrote in the first of two tweets.
He followed up later by attempting to shift the focus from Khizr Khan’s criticism of his proposed Muslim ban to the Iraq war in which Khan’s son was killed.
“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!” Trump tweeted.
As Trump pushed back, first asking whether Ghazala Khan’s silence on stage was related to her faith, Khizr Khan again attacked Trump Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“He is a black soul, and this is totally unfit for the leadership of this country,” Khan said. “The love and affection that we have received affirms that our grief — that our experience in this country has been correct and positive. The world is receiving us like we have never seen. They have seen the blackness of his character, of his soul.”
Trump’s advisers attempted to move past the controversy, downplaying the direct conflict between Trump and the Khan family.
“What he’s saying is that Mr. Trump has a right to defend himself, to make clear what he’s saying is this is about Islamic terrorism, for him to be criticized like that he didn’t think was fair,” Trump aide Jason Miller told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday.