The escalating conflict between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Khans, the Muslim couple whose son died fighting in the Iraq War, has spilled into politics in Virginia, home to the Khan family.
Two Republican politicians — Ed Gillespie, who is running for governor in 2017, and U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, who is seeking election to a second-term in November — issued statements praising Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in 2004 fending off a suicide bomber, and his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan.
But their statements stopped short of criticizing Trump for his attacks on the couple in the days following their forceful condemnation of the presidential contender at the Democratic National Convention.
And that drew fire from their Democratic rivals.
“Any candidate for governor should stand up to a bully when he attacks a Virginia military family,” Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, the only declared Democratic candidate for governor, said in a statement. “Our troops show courage every day and this is not a time for politicians to hide or keep quiet.”
Gillespie posted a statement on Facebook on Sunday saying he’s deeply saddened by the Khan family’s pain of losing their son.
Gillespie said he and his wife “are praying for Dr. and Mrs. Khan today in sorrow and appreciation for their sacrifice, and thanking God that we live in a country that produces men like their son.”
The statement did not mention Trump. Through a spokesman, Gillespie declined to explain why.
“Democrats are desperate to make next years’s governor’s race about Donald Trump, but it’s not,” said spokesman Chris Leavitt. “When Ed runs for governor next year, he will be running on his own ideas and campaigning in his own words.”
In a state that is home to the world’s largest naval base and one of the nation’s largest veteran populations, military voters and their families hold sway in Virginia politics. Trump’s unusual foray into a fight with a grieving military family prompted repudiation from military groups. Both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called out Trump on Monday.
But Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman, Corey A. Stewart, who is also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, said Trump’s words were misconstrued by Democrats exploiting the family for political gain.
“The Democrats have really, in a very disgraceful way, tried to put this poor grieving family in the middle of a nasty political situation,” said Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.
Like Gillespie, another Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, praised Khan but did not directly criticize Trump in response to questions from The Washington Post.
“Our military men and women and their families answer a calling that is higher than politics, and we must honor that by condemning attempts to politicize and especially to criticize sacrifices military families make,” Wittman said in a statement.
Emily Bolton, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Democratic Party, responded, “This is arguably the most reprehensible thing Donald Trump could have said. It’s imperative that Republicans up and down the ballot, especially in Virginia, set an example and be leaders on this issue by condemning Donald Trump.”
On Monday morning, Trump criticized Khizr Khan on Twitter for “viciously” attacking him and continuing to do so on multiple television appearances. He previously suggested that Ghazala Khan’s silence during her husband’s convention speech was because, as a Muslim woman, she wasn’t allowed to speak.
Asked about Trump’s role in prolonging the conflict, Stewart suggested the businessman and the family should meet to resolve their differences and recognize what they have in common.
“He admires and respects the sacrifice they made, and I think that would be a good idea for them to talk — in private,” said Stewart.
In the closely watched 10th Congressional District in Northern Virginia, incumbent Comstock was one of the first state Republicans to comment on the Khan controversy by praising the fallen soldier’s service.
“We are a greater country because men like Captain Khan still choose to serve our country and volunteer and sacrifice for the security and safety of us all,” Comstock wrote in an early Sunday morning Facebook post with photos of Khan in uniform and his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
Her Democratic opponent, LuAnn Bennett, on Monday said condolences were not enough.
“Despite all their family has given to our country, my opponent refused to renounce Trump’s attacks on their character,” Bennett posted on Facebook. “With this refusal, my opponent failed the basic test of leadership.”
When asked about this by The Post, a spokesman for Comstock emailed a statement that condemned Trump’s remarks but did not mention him by name.
“Since last fall I have made clear on numerous occasions that I find these kinds of statements and comments repugnant,” Comstock said in the statement.
She has not endorsed Trump and has made reaching out to minorities, including Muslims, a mainstay of her campaign. In December, she called Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from immigrating to the United States unconstitutional and un-American.
In the contest for an open seat representing the 5th Congressional district where the Khans live, Democratic candidate Jane Dittmar called on her opponent, state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr., to join McCain and other Republicans in denouncing Trump.
Garrett, an Army veteran, said he honored Khan’s sacrifice, but did not directly address Trump’s dispute with the family.