NEW YORK — 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 he has repeatedly answered the Khan family’s criticism with harsh and defensive rhetoric.
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. Trump and his advisers tried repeatedly to change the subject to Islamic terrorism, to no avail.
Instead, Trump appeared to be caught on Sunday in perhaps the biggest crisis of his campaign, rivaling the uproar in June after he attacked a federal judge, Gonzalo P. Curiel, over his “Mexican heritage.” By going after a military family and trafficking in ethnic stereotypes, Trump once again breached multiple norms of American politics, redoubling pressure on his fellow Republicans to choose between defending his remarks or breaking publicly with their nominee.
Trump also risked reopening controversies related to religious tolerance and military service: His treatment of the Khans has already brought on a new wave of criticism of his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, as well as of his mockery of Sen. John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
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 D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, signaled their strong disagreement with Trump, but stopped short of condemning him in blunt terms.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, sternly reprimanded Trump Sunday morning, saying at a church in Cleveland that Trump 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 chastised Trump again Sunday in Ashland, Ohio, calling his comments part of a disturbing pattern. “He called Mexicans rapists and criminals,” Clinton said. “He said a federal judge was unqualified because he had Mexican heritage, someone born in the neighboring state of Indiana. He’s called women pigs. He’s mocked a reporter with a disability.”
And at an earlier stop in Youngstown, Ohio, late Saturday, Bill Clinton likened Trump’s treatment of the Khans to his ridicule of McCain. “I was crazed by the attack on Senator McCain. But at least he survived,” Bill Clinton said. Of Humayun Khan, the fallen soldier, Bill Clinton said, “That man gave his life for his unit.”
Both Khizr and Ghazala Khan stiffened their denunciation of Trump Sunday, saying that he lacked the moral character and basic empathy to be president. Khizr Khan, who addressed the Democratic National Convention Thursday, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC that Trump had shown disrespect to his wife, and he accused Trump of running a campaign “of hatred, of derision, of dividing us.”
In a direct appeal to voters inclined to support Trump, Khizr Khan pleaded with them to reject his brand of politics.
Addressing himself to “patriotic Americans that would probably vote for Donald Trump,” Khizr Khan pleaded, “I appeal to them not to vote for hatred, not to vote for fear-mongering. Vote for unity. Vote for the goodness of this country.”
And Ghazala Khan, in an opinion article published in The Washington Post, rebuked Trump for suggesting earlier in the weekend that she had not been permitted to speak at the Democratic convention. Ghazala Khan said she did not speak because she did not believe she could remain composed while talking about her son.
“All the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart,” Ghazala Khan wrote. She continued: “Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?”
Ghazala Khan said Trump was “ignorant” of Islam and criticized him for offering his business career as evidence that he had sacrificed for his country. “Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices,” Ghazala Khan said. “He doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.”
It is too soon to say how severe the damage to Trump’s campaign might be, but his clash with the Khans has already entangled him in a self-destructive, dayslong argument with a pair of sympathetic accusers who are portraying him as a person of unredeemable callousness. Several prominent Republicans have spoken out against Trump’s treatment of the Khans, calling his behavior outside the bounds of political discourse.
Still, Republican congressional leaders responded cautiously to Trump. Both Ryan and McConnell released statements stressing their admiration for the Khan family; McConnell called Humayun Khan an “American hero.” And both said they were firmly opposed to banning Muslim immigration, though neither mentioned Trump, whom they have endorsed for president, by name.
“Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example,” Ryan said. “His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”
Trump’s clash with the Khan family threatens to unwind any modest progress he may have made at moderating his campaign and rallying the Republican Party at the outset of the general election. He has sought in recent weeks to play down his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, and his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, argued Sunday that Trump intended to block immigration based on geography, focusing on nations affected by terrorism.
But Trump has never withdrawn the idea of a religious test for people entering the country and has repeatedly denied that he was rolling back his plans. And he has not apologized to the Khan family for his comments about Ghazala Khan.
Other Republicans went much further than Ryan and McConnell in chiding Trump. 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.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday that Trump had crossed another inviolable line. Like his comments about Curiel, Graham said, Trump’s jabs at Khizr and Ghazala Khan were entirely unacceptable. “This is going to a place where we’ve never gone before, to push back against the families of the fallen,” he said.
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, denounced Trump’s remarks. Coffman, who represents a crucial swing district in the Denver suburbs, 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,” Coffman said.
The pressure on Trump and other Republicans is unlikely to relent soon. But so far he has flailed and faltered in response.
He first criticized Ghazala Khan for not speaking alongside her husband, implying that she had been forbidden from doing so. Facing mounting criticism from Democrats and Republicans, Trump released a follow-up statement Saturday night, describing the Khans’ deceased son as a hero, but insisting that Khizr Khan had “no right” to criticize him the way he did in Philadelphia. He made a third attempt to deflect the Khans’ criticism Sunday, writing on Twitter that the real issue at stake in the election was terrorism. The Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, appears to be in a particularly awkward position in the uproar. One of his sons is a Marine, a fact he mentions frequently. Pence’s ability to navigate a racially charged argument between Trump and a Gold Star family is emerging as his first difficult test as Trump’s running mate.
So far, Pence has been silent, and his aides referred requests for comment to Trump’s campaign staff. Pence’s sole public comment Sunday was a post on Twitter about getting his hair cut in Indianapolis.