Donald Trump reeled on Sunday amid a sustained campaign of criticism by the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq and a rising outcry within his own party over his rough and racially charged dismissal of the couple.
The confrontation between the parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and Trump has emerged as an unexpected and potentially pivotal flash point in the general election.
Trump has plainly struggled to respond to the reproach of a military family who lost a son, and has answered their criticism derisively — first implying that Ghazala Khan had been forbidden to speak at the Democratic National Convention, then declaring that Khizr Khan had “no right” to question Trump’s familiarity with the Constitution.
And Trump’s usual political tool kit has appeared to fail him. He earned no reprieve with his complaints that Khizr Khan had been unfair to him; on Sunday morning, he claimed on Twitter that Khizr Khan had “viciously attacked” him.
Instead, Trump appeared to be caught in one of the biggest crises of his campaign, rivaling the uproar in June after he suggested a federal judge was biased because of his Mexican heritage.
Democratic leaders and candidates for Congress began over the weekend to call on Republicans to disavow Trump. And the top two Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, signaled their strong disagreement with Trump, but stopped short of condemning him in blunt terms.
Some Republicans went further. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is seeking re-election, said the Khans deserved the utmost respect: “I am appalled that Donald Trump would disparage them and that he had the gall to compare his own sacrifices to those of a Gold Star family.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Sunday that Trump had crossed another inviolable line: “This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen.”
He added: “The problem is, ‘unacceptable’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, a Republican who served in combat as a Marine, said Trump had disrespected U.S. troops: “Having served in Iraq, I’m deeply offended when Donald Trump fails to honor the sacrifices of all of our brave soldiers who were lost in that war.”
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton sternly reprimanded Trump Sunday morning, saying at a church in Cleveland that he had answered the Khan family’s sacrifice with disrespect for them and for American traditions of religious tolerance.
“Mr. Khan paid the ultimate sacrifice in his family, didn’t he?” Clinton said. “And what has he heard from Donald Trump? Nothing but insults, degrading comments about Muslims, a total misunderstanding of what made our country great.”
Clinton’s comments came after Trump refused to back down.
“Am I not allowed to respond?” Trump had tweeted. “Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!”
Khizr and Ghazala Khan stiffened their denunciation of Trump on Sunday, saying that he lacked the moral character and empathy to be president. Khizr Khan, who addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump was running a campaign “of hatred, of derision, of dividing us.”
Ghazala Khan, in an opinion article published in The Washington Post, rebuked Trump for suggesting that she had not been permitted to speak at the convention. Ghazala Khan said she did not speak because she did not believe she could remain composed while talking about her son, Capt. Humayun Khan.
“I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart,” Ghazala Khan wrote, using the term for surviving family members of those who died in war.
It is too soon to say how severe the damage to Trump might be, but the clash has entangled him in a dayslong argument with sympathetic accusers who are portraying him as a person of unredeemable callousness. Still, he has proved remarkably resilient, getting past controversies that might have sunk other candidates.
In another campaign development, Trump on Sunday suggested the U.S. accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea if it would lead to better relations with Moscow and stronger cooperation in fighting Islamic State militants.
That view runs counter to the Obama administration, which imposed economic sanctions against Russia for annexing the territory in Ukraine. The United Nations also doesn’t want countries to recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Trump suggested that the people of Crimea would rather be part of Russia. However, the U.S. hasn’t recognized the legitimacy of Russian referendums in Crimea and believes they were not conducted fairly.
In the interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump said that if he were president, Russian President Vladimir Putin would not send his forces into Ukraine. He then backpedaled when Stephanopoulos pointed out that Russian troops had been there for nearly two years.
“He’s not going into Ukraine; OK, just so you understand,” Trump said when the issue came up. “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”
”Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Stephanopoulos interrupted.
“OK, well, he’s there in a certain way,” Trump replied. “But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He take — takes Crimea.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Trump said it would be a “great thing” if the U.S. got along with Russia and if Russia would help fight the Islamic State group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.