AMES, Iowa – Donald Trump said on Saturday that GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona was “not a war hero” because he had been taken prisoner by the Vietcong, prompting a firestorm of criticism from Republican leaders.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said during an onstage Q&A at the conservative Family Leadership Summit, an event that features a number of Republican presidential contenders. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay?”
Perhaps realizing he had gone too far – even for him – Trump followed up by saying “perhaps he’s a war hero” before repeating his criticism of McCain’s academic record in the U.S. Naval Academy over five decades ago.
McCain was held in captivity for over five years in Vietnam after his plane was shot down during a mission. He was tortured during his time in a prisoner camp and refused an offer by his captors to release him due to his father’s high rank in the military.
Asked by msnbc and other reporters about his comments at a press conference after his onstage appearance, Trump ripped into McCain again, but also denied he had implied he thought less of soldiers who had been captured.
“I think John McCain’s done very little for the veterans. I’m very disappointed in John McCain,” Trump said. “If somebody’s a prisoner I consider them a war hero other than [Bowe Bergdahl] … I don’t consider him a war hero. If somebody’s in prison I would consider that person a war hero, but we have a lot of war heroes who weren’t prisoners also and we should give them some credit too.”
Army Sgt. Bergdahl was charged with desertion in March after being freed from Taliban captivity in a prisoner exchange in spring 2014. He was held hostage in Afghanistan for five years.
Asked whether he would apologize to McCain, Trump replied: “No, not at all.”
Regarding his own Vietnam record, in which he received several deferments and ultimately never served in the military, Trump said he did not go to war because he was a student at first, then later due to bone spurs in his foot. He added that he opposed American military action in Vietnam at the time.
“I was not a big fan of the Vietnam War,” he said. “I wasn’t a protester, but the Vietnam War was a disaster for our country. What did we get out of the Vietnam War other than death? We got nothing.”
Trump said he was upset that McCain had told The New Yorker this week that he had “fired up the crazies” with his inflammatory rhetoric regarding illegal immigration.
“He called them a bunch of crazies, that was an amazing crowd of people, those were great Americans,” Trump told reporters.
Trump swung wildly between vitriol and pleas for unity during his press briefing, which at times grew contentious. “One of the things we have to do is bring our country together,” Trump told msnbc. “You people at MSNBC, the Fox people, the CNN people, we have to bring everyone together.”
“Does attacking a POW do that?” Stephen Hayes, a reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard, retorted.
“I didn’t do that,” Trump said.
The attack on McCain’s service ratcheted up pressure on GOP leaders to distance themselves from Trump, who some Republicans fear is dragging down the party brand with his inflammatory and combative style.
Some of Trump’s rivals attacked him from the same stage where he made his remarks.
“Here’s what I think [voters] are going to say: ‘Donald Trump, you’re fired,’” Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose candidacy is backed by McCain, told the Ames crowd. The line drew applause and cheers.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called Trump’s remarks “slanderous,” saying McCain and all U.S. veterans deserve “respect and admiration.” “I unequivocally denounce him,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who had previously kept quiet during Trump’s rise in the polls, told reporters at an Iowa campaign stop, according to The New York Times. Former Sen. Rick Santorum also called McCain a hero, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky conceded that while he doesn’t “always see eye to eye with @SenJohnMcCain,” he honors “his service and the sacrifices he made for our country.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal took a harsher tone: “I think after Donald Trump spends 6 years as a prisoner of war, then he can comment on Senator McCain’s record,” he told msnbc in Ames. “The reality is, we should all be proud of Senator McCain’s service in uniform.”
And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “I know Senator John McCain. Senator John McCain is an American hero. Period. Stop.”
Sen. McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, seemingly alluded to Trump’s comments on Twitter saying, “I can’t believe what I am reading this morning. Horrified. Disgusted. There are no words.”
Only former Texas Gov. Rick Perry explicitly called on Trump to withdraw his presidential candidacy. “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,” Perry, who was scheduled to appear at the Family Leadership Summit and has also feuded with Trump recently, said in a statement.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson declined to criticize Trump’s take on McCain. “It depends on your definition of a war hero,” he told reporters after his speech on Saturday when asked whether McCain qualifies. “I think he has done some wonderful things, certainly that history is consistent [with] what would be considered a war hero. So do we take that away from him, because some people disagree with him politically? I think that’s probably a stupid way to do things.”
Amid all the GOP backlash, there was one notable outlier: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz, who recently met with Trump and has lavished praise on his rival for drawing attention to illegal immigration, pointedly declined to criticize his latest outburst, telling The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker, “Folks in the press love to see rep-on-rep 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.”
It didn’t take long for Trump to begin doing his own version of damage control. After leaving the summit, Trump continued to criticize McCain on social media, but he backtracked a bit, too, saying, “Captured or not, all our soldiers are heroes!”
Trump’s trashing of McCain seemed to be a turning point for party officials. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had taken a relatively gentle approach until his latest remarks, calling Trump’s previous immigration rhetoric “not helpful” and suggesting in a phone call earlier this month that he perhaps tone things down.
On Saturday, however, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer took a more direct approach: “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably,” he tweeted.
Such a move comes with risks, though. Trump has repeatedly threatened to run as an independent and some GOP strategists are concerned he’ll play a spoiler role in the general election if he feels disrespected.
“I’m not going to rule [it] out,” Trump said when asked about a possible independent run on Saturday. “I’m going to say that it’s highly unlikely.”
In the short term, Trump looks likely to meet the polling requirements for the first Republican debate, which is hosted by Fox News on August 6, raising the prospect of yet another high-profile event dominated by the billionaire real estate mogul.