WASHINGTON — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Monday spent a fourth day under a cascade of criticism over how he treated the family of a US soldier who died in the line of duty, the latest in a series of inflammatory episodes that have come to define his campaign.
In this instance Trump has turned his fire on perhaps the most sympathetic figures that a candidate could target: Those who’ve sacrificed a child to protect the country.
Trump’s remarks in the past few days aimed at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, prompted a remarkable rebuke Monday from US Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
Trump complained Monday that he had been ‘‘viciously attacked’’ by the parents. He seemed to acknowledge during a rally Monday that events aren’t going his way in the campaign, but blamed elites — not himself — for his bumpy campaign.
“I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” Trump said Monday afternoon.
It’s a baffling tactic in his unconventional campaign, but consistent with his scorched-earth approach to winning the support of the American people. Trump has also, in recent months, praised a dictator, distributed the star of David in what was widely perceived as an anti-Semitic tweet, disparaged a federal judge, and seemingly called on Russia to launch a cyber-attack on his political opponent. (He said it was a joke.)
With each new extraordinary statement, establishment Republicans who’ve reluctantly backed Trump find themselves participating in a stumbling and chaotic response while their most vulnerable lawmakers up for election attempt to take shelter from the Trump-induced storm system.
The most searing critique came from McCain, the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee and a war hero in his own right, who issued a lengthy and heartfelt statement aimed at putting an ocean between the Republican Party and the campaign Trump is leading.
“I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates,” McCain said of Trump, who just 11 days ago was nominated to be the party’s standard-bearer.
“While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
On Monday, Trump rebukes flowed from near and far, with top Republicans sprinting away from the candidate and President Obama making a veiled reference to the controversy. Even the Islamic State, a terrorist organization intent on killing Americans, noted the controversy, posting an image of the grave containing remains of the dead soldier at the center of the issue.
Obama, addressing the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta Monday, spoke of those who have lost family members in the military service. ‘‘No one has given more to our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families. . . . They represent the very best of our country,’’ the president said.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said Gold Star families who lose a relative in battle deserve “the utmost respect.” He added: “As I have said many times, Donald Trump lacks the temperament necessary to be president and his recent comments epitomize his inability to respect others.”
On Sunday, Senator Susan M. Collins of Maine called Captain Khan “an American hero.” The Republican senator added: “No one should criticize grieving parents who have lost a son in combat.”
And from New Hampshire, where there’s a tight election underway, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said she was “appalled” by Trump’s statements. Former Trump rival Marco Rubio, who is trying to win reelection to his Florida Senate seat, said Trump’s comments were “unfortunate.”
Making Republican strategists cringe all the more, damage from Trump’s words stole attention from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose TV performances are often less than stellar.
On Sunday in a Fox News interview Clinton tried to recast a scathing assessment by FBI director James Comey of how she handled classified information.
In the interview, she insisted that the FBI director has vouched she’s provided “truthful” answers and that e-mails on her controversial private server were only classified retroactively. The interview earned her “four Pinocchios” from Washington Post fact-checkers, who noted that the FBI found e-mails on her system that were classified at the time they were sent.
But few paid any attention as the focus was on Trump and the politicians around the country who were disavowing him.
“Trump never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist. “He’s running against a candidate with the highest negatives in the history of her party and yet somehow managed to outdo her with a negative rating of his own that is even higher.”
This all came after Trump issued a stream of critical statements in the past few days aimed at the Khans, whose son died trying to stop a suicide bomber.
Khizr Khan ignited Trump’s wrath after speaking briefly at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, taking the stage just hours before Hillary Clinton accepted her party’s presidential nomination.
“If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America,” said Khan, who is Muslim, as he wife stood next to him. “Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership.”
Then Khan, a lawyer, directly addressed Trump. “Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
Khan waved a pocket-sized copy of the document in the air.
In addition to attacking Khizr Khan, Trump also criticized Ghazala Khan, saying she was not permitted to speak at the convention because of her Islamic faith. She later said that she was overcome by grief and chose not to say anything for fear of losing her composure before a live audience of millions.
VoteVets, a Democratic leaning organization, requested that Trump apologize to the Khan family. Signed by 23 Gold Star families who’ve also lost loved ones in battle, the letter accuses Trump of cheapening the ultimate sacrifice paid by their loved one.
Keavin Duffy, whose brother died in 2008 in Iraq, signed the letter and said in an interview that Trump’s behavior is “un-American.”
“This is a very important moment for the character of our nation,” said Duffy, 34, of Taunton, Mass. “It doesn’t matter about party anymore. Should a national candidate for office be getting into a Twitter fight with Gold Star families?”
A coalition of veterans groups sent a separate letter to all political candidates Monday, asking for “respect not only for those who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom but also their families who have borne such a loss to protect our liberties.”
Perhaps the only positive for Trump was that the Khan controversy overshadowed another unforced error he made Sunday, during an interview with ABC News, when he seemed unaware that Russia is occupying Crimea, which is a portion of Ukraine.
Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump said: “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. 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.”
George Stephanopoulos of ABC News replied: “Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?”
And by the end of the day Monday, Trump had made another statement likely to inflame.
When asked in an interview with a Fox News and USA Today contributor how he’d advise his daughter Ivanka if she was sexually harassed in the workplace, he said he’d tell her to leave.
“I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case,” Trump said.
Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.