Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt joined a growing chorus of Republican politicians on Monday who distanced Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks toward the parents of a slain service member.
But Blunt stopped short of revoking his endorsement of his party’s presidential nominee.
“The Khans have made the greatest possible sacrifice for our country; they deserve to be heard and respected,” the senator said in a statement Monday.
Blunt is in a closer-than-expected battle to defend his Senate seat against Democratic challenger Jason Kander, an Afghanistan war veteran. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll showed Blunt with a 4-point lead over Kander, 47 percent to 43 percent.
His statement issued on Monday echoed others in recent days by prominent Republicans such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, all of whom condemned Trump’s remarks about the Khan family, but did not withdraw their support for the billionare developer.
In his statement, Blunt, who was exempted from the Vietnam draft three times because he was a student, referred to his own son Matt’s stint as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Matt Blunt also served a term as governor of Missouri.
“I remember how much I worried about my son Matt during his years of active duty,” Blunt said in the statement.
McCain blasted Trump in a similar vein.
“In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents. He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service,” McCain said in a statement released by his office Monday.
“I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
Blunt also offered an unsolicited tip for Trump: “My advice to Donald Trump has been and will continue to be to focus on jobs and national security and stop responding to every criticism whether it's from a grieving family or Hillary Clinton,” he said.
A spokesman for Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Overland Park also issued a statement Monday saying the congressman disagreed with Trump’s treatment of the Khans.
“Capt. Khan is a hero,” said the spokesman, C.J. Grover. “Rhetoric coming from presidential campaigns doesn’t change the fact that Kevin has fought every day in Congress to support our troops and provide our veterans with the care they deserve. It also doesn't change the fact Hillary Clinton would be a disaster for our country.”
Earlier in the day, McCain had issued an even harsher statement denouncing Trump’s attacks on the Khans.
“In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” McCain said. “He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump's statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers or candidates.”
Ayotte, whose husband is an Iraq War veteran, also released a statement saying she was “appalled” that Trump would disparage the Khan family, and that “he had the gall to compare his own sacrifices to those of a Gold Star family.”
The reaction of Blunt, Yoder, McCain, Ayotte and other Republicans up for re-election in November reflects a concern by some in the party that Trump’s provocative remarks and tweets might become fodder for political opponents of Republicans down the ballot in November.
“Republican candidates are trying to find a balance between distancing themselves from Trump and not letting what Trump says dictate the direction of the conversation,” said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks House of Representatives, Senate and governor races.
“I think Republicans are concerned that if they get into a pattern of answering for everything Donald Trump says, they won’t be able to talk about any of the issues they want to talk about,” Gonzales said. “It seems like with each comment or tweet, things get ratcheted up higher and people say, ‘I know you’re not going to answer for everything, but what about this? What about this?’ There’s always something else.”
Although Blunt has declined to comment on many of Trump’s previous statements, the Missouri senator’s campaign might have felt compelled to respond to Trump’s feud with the Khans because he is running against a veteran.
“I don’t believe in accidents in campaigns, and I think that the Blunt team wouldn’t have issued a press release if they didn’t think they needed to or had to,” Gonzales said.
It wouldn’t be easy for Blunt and fellow embattled Republicans to just drop their support for Trump entirely, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, which analyzes presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races.
“Here’s the problem: A lot of the Republican base still support (Trump) and they’re his base too,” Duffy said. “Republicans have to realize the guy got 14 million votes. . . . It’s hard to walk away from that.”
Blunt’s opponent, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, tweeted about the controversy over the weekend, chiding Trump specifically for his treatment of Khan’s mother, Ghazala Khan.
“Whether you’ve served or not, how can anyone’s heart be so devoid of love that they’d slander a gold star mom?” wrote Kander, who served as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
And Kander’s campaign hit Blunt directly on Monday for not withdrawing his support for Trump.
“Even when he knows Donald Trump is wrong, Sen. Blunt refuses to challenge him,” said the Democrat’s campaign spokesman, Chris Hayden, in an email.
“Offering Donald Trump political advice is not the same thing as rebuking his horrible comments about a war hero’s family,” Hayden said. “It is one more example of Sen. Blunt putting his political party over his country.”
Trump began lashing out on television and on Twitter at Khizr and Ghazala Khan after the couple appeared at the Democratic National Convention last week to endorse Hillary Clinton.
Khizr Khan’s speech suggested Trump is ignorant of the Constitution and criticized his plans to curb immigration of Muslims like his son to America. He said Trump had sacrificed “nothing and no one” for his country.
The Khans’ son Humayun, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 2 years old, died defending fellow U.S. troops from a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004.
Trump has questioned whether Ghazala Khan had remained silent as her husband Khizr spoke because she was not allowed to talk.
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said, on national television. “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”
Ghazala Khan later said she’d chosen not to speak because she was too overcome with emotion. She has since given multiple interviews and published an opinion piece about her son.
“Donald Trump has asked why I did not speak at the Democratic convention. He said he would like to hear from me,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Here is my answer to Donald Trump: Because without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart.”
She said Trump said he had made many sacrifices, but he “doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.”