Donald Trump confirmed two things during a stop in this central Iowa town Saturday: He has no class and he may well run as an independent when he does not win the Republican nomination.
There had been considerable public evidence of both long before his appearance here today at the Family Leader Summit but Trump, who is leading several national polls of the Republican primary, erased any doubt with comments he made about Senator John McCain and a prospective independent bid.
Trump was answering questions from Republican pollster Frank Luntz on stage when he declared that John McCain, who spent six years as a POW in Vietnam, was not a war hero. Trump went on to express his preference for soldiers who weren’t captured, suggesting a belief that prisoners of war have some say in their captivity. Luntz had asked Trump about his reaction to McCain’s comment that Trump had stirred up the “crazies” with his candidacy. When Trump attacked McCain, Luntz asked if Trump was comfortable with that kind of criticism of a war hero.
“He’s not a war hero,” said Trump. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” The comments clearly shocked the crowd at the summit, some of whom reacted with boos and shouts of condemnation.
McCain was shot down flying combat missions in Vietnam on October 26, 1967. He was taken captivity with a broken right leg and fractures in both arms. He was beaten and tortured repeatedly, in part because his father commanded the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
At a testy press conference after his performance, and as the real-time scorn for his comments dominated Twitter, Trump doubled-down. He pretended that his criticism came because McCain “has not done enough for veterans in this country…I see the veterans. I’m with the veterans all the time. Some of these people wait four or five days just to see a doctor.”
Of course, if Trump had even passing knowledge of the current controversy over care for U.S. veterans, he would understand that some veterans wait literally months before seeing a doctor – not just four or five days. But fact-checking Donald Trump is like picking up after a dog with diarrhea; there’s just not much point.
I asked Trump if he was blaming John McCain for his capture, as his comments implied. “I am saying John McCain has not done a good job,” Trump responded, dodging the question.
When I repeated the question, Trump said: “I am not blaming John McCain for his capture. If he gets captured, he gets captured.”
“Why would you say you like people who don’t get captured?”
Trump: “The people that don’t get captured I’m not supposed to like? I like the people who don’t get captured and I respect the people who do get captured.”
Why would you say that in the context of John McCain: “Excuse me, excuse me. I like the people that don’t get – you have many people that didn’t get captured. I respect them greatly. You’ve got people that got captured. I respect them greatly also. Why – I’m not supposed to respect the people that don’t get captured?
Are you suggesting that John McCain did something to lead to his capture?
Trump: “Of course not.”
Why would you say what you said?
At that point, Trump turned and answered a question about China.
Later, I asked Trump if he would apologize to McCain. “No, not at all.”
And after that, I asked Trump if he had ever read any accounts of McCain’s time in captivity before he suggested McCain is not a war hero.
For those who find it relevant, McCain wrote about his experience in 1973. After he was shot down, he described being taken into captivity. “When they had most of my clothes off, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I sat up and looked at it, and my right foot was resting next to my left knee, just in a 90-degree position. I said, "My God--my leg!" That seemed to enrage them —I don't know why. One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder, and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot. The mob was really getting up-tight.”
For the next three or four days, I lapsed from conscious to unconsciousness. During this time, I was taken out to interrogation—which we called a "quiz"—several times. That's when I was hit with all sorts of war-criminal charges. This started on the first day. I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They beat me around a little bit. I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious. They kept saying, "You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk." I didn't believe this. I thought that if I just held out, that they'd take me to the hospital. I was fed small amounts of food by the guard and also allowed to drink some water. I was able to hold the water down, but I kept vomiting the food. They wanted military rather than political information at this time. Every time they asked me something, I'd just give my name, rank and serial number and date of birth.
Mark Salter, McCain’s former chief of staff who co-wrote several of McCain’s book on his service and the service of others, posted on his Facebook page shortly after Trump’s comments. “Is this a great country or what. Even morons can get rich here.”
Several Republican candidates denounced Trump in campaign appearances or on Twitter. "@SenJohnMcCain is an American hero, period. I'll denounced any attack against his service and anyone else who wears the uniform," said Scott Walker, in a tweet.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who was the first candidate to denounce Trump's comments, tweeted: "John McCain is an American hero. I have nothing but respect for his service to our country. After Donald Trump spends six years in a POW camp, he can weigh in on John McCain's service."
Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, called for Trump to "withdraw" from the presidential 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."
Marco Rubio tweeted: "America's POWs deserve much better than to have their service questioned by the offensive rantings of Donald Trump."
Jeb Bush: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans -- particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration."
Ted Cruz, who has been the candidate most friendly to Trump and no doubt hopes to pick up erstwhile Trump supporters after the inevitable Trump implosion, refused to offer any criticism. “Folks in the press love to see Republican-on-Republican violence, so you want me to say something bad about Donald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else. I’m not going to do it. John McCain is a friend of mine. I respect and admire him and he’s an American hero. And Donald Trump is a friend of mine.”
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, in a statement, said: “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably."
Idiotic statements are nothing new to Trump, who called George W. Bush "evil," who has long advanced birther conspiracies about Barack Obama, and who used his announcement speech to suggest that Mexican illegal immigrants are “rapists.”
Later in his appearance here, Trump was asked directly by an audience member whether he would rule out running as a third party candidate for president. “No, no,” Trump said. “I won’t go on record as saying that.”
It’s a comment that should surprise nobody, since Trump first flirted with politics as a potential candidate for the Reform Party’s nomination in 1999. Despite his announcement, Trump is not a candidate so much as a carnival barker on an extended ego ride. And if he runs as a third party candidate, he could well deliver the White House to Hillary Clinton – a past recipient of Trump praise and campaign contributions.
UPDATE: Pete Hegseth, the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, writes in a statement:
"What a dumb thing to say--to steal a favorite phrase from Mr. Trump. It's certainly painfully ironic that a guy with four student deferments during Vietnam would say such outrageous things about a legitimate war hero. It boggles the mind and is the height of arrogance.
"Mr. Trump's popularity has been tied to his ability to say what people are thinking and feeling; tapping into the near-universal concern about the direction of our country. In this case -- he said the opposite of what people, especially conservatives, think. John McCain is a war hero, plain and simple. Moreover, he has taken the lead -- for years -- in trying to give veterans real health care choices and holding the VA accountability. Trump's assertion that McCain has 'done very little for veterans' is patently false, ill-informed and unhelpful in every way."
This post was updated to include a statement from Rick Perry.