AMES, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump slammed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran, on Saturday by saying McCain was not a war hero because he was captured by the North Vietnamese.
Trump’s comments came during his appearance at the Family Leadership Summit, a day-long gathering of about 3,000 social conservative activists that is drawing nine other Republican presidential candidates.
A celebrity businessman and reality television star, Trump has surged to the top of polls in the GOP race, in part because of his inflammatory comments about undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
Republican leaders and other candidates have been careful in how they respond to his immigration remarks, but his condemnation of McCain opened the floodgates, drawing swift and sharp criticism from other Republicans.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry, himself a subject of recent attacks from Trump, said Trump was “unfit” to serve as president and should “immediately withdraw” from the race.
“Donald Trump should apologize immediately for attacking Senator McCain and all veterans who have protected and served our country,” Perry said in a statement. “As a veteran and an American, I respect Sen. McCain because he volunteered to serve his country. I cannot say the same of Mr. Trump. His comments have reached a new low in American politics. His attack on veterans make him unfit to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and he should immediately withdraw from the race for President.”
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, also chimed in with a Twitter post calling or an end to such “slanderous attacks”:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, campaigning in Western Iowa, denounced Trump’s remarks and said McCain is “undoubtedly an American hero.” This is a change in tune for Walker, who on Friday refused to speak ill of Trump over his immigration comments.
“He needs to apologize to Senator McCain and all the other men and women who have worn the uniform,” Walker told reporters following a campaign stop in Sioux City. “It’s just a disgrace.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) posted on Twitter: “America’s POWs deserve much better than to have their service questioned by the offensive rantings of Donald Trump”
The Republican National Committee also criticized Trump and defended McCain.
“Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period,” RNC Chief Strategist and Communications Director Sean Spicer said in a statement. “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.”
Mitt Romney, who ran against McCain in the 2008 GOP primaries, also took to Twitter to defend him: “The difference between @SenJohnMcCain and @realDonaldTrump: Trump shot himself down. McCain and American veterans are true heroes.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has been perhaps the loudest defender of Trump’s remarks about immigrants and met privately with Trump a few days ago in New York, refused to condemn Trump over his comments about McCain.
Cruz said that he considers McCain a friend and “an American war hero” and that it is an honor to serve with him in the Senate. But he said he would not criticize another Republican candidate, including Trump.
“I recognize that folks in the press love to see Republican-on-Republican violence, so you want me to say something bad about Donald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else,” Cruz told reporters here. “I’m not going to do it. John McCain is a friend of mine. I respect and admire him and he’s an American hero. And Donald Trump is a friend of mine.”
For the past few days, Trump has been publicly feuding with McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee. McCain said that Trump had drawn out “crazies” with his immigration-focused rally in Phoenix last weekend, and Trump responded by calling McCain a “dummy” for finishing at the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.
Trump stepped up his criticism of McCain on Saturday in Ames. He said he had supported McCain's 2008 campaign and claimed to have raised $1 million for him.
“He lost,” Trump said. “He let us down. I never liked him as much after that because I don’t like losers.”
In a combative, 18-minute news conference following his remarks here, Trump refused to apologize for his attack on McCain's war service.
Trump said he considers prisoners of war to be heroes — although he called Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl an exception — but accused McCain of doing little to help veterans in the Senate.
“John McCain has not done enough for the veterans,” Trump told reporters. “The veterans in this country are suffering. The veterans in this country are treated as third-class citizens. John McCain talks a lot, but he doesn’t do anything.”
Trump grew hot and agitated by repeated and sharp questioning from reporters, who were asking him to explain his earlier suggestion that McCain should not be considered a war hero because he had been captured.
“I like the people that don’t get captured, and I respect the people that do get captured,” Trump said.
But he did not answer the questions about McCain directly. He snapped at one persistent reporter, “Go back to being a pundit.”
Trump managed to avoid serving in the Vietnam war because of a series of draft deferments. Asked why he didn’t serve, Trump said, “I had student deferments and ultimately had a medical deferment because of my feet. I had a bone spur.” But Trump said he did not recall which foot was injured and instructed reporters to look up his records.
Trump added, “I was not a big fan of the Vietnam War. I wasn’t a protester, but the Vietnam War was a disaster for our country. What did we get out of the Vietnam War other than death? We got nothing.”
After meeting with the news media, Trump took to Twitter, where he did not back down from his criticism of McCain:
Outside the political world, Trump was also being widely criticized.
Ann Mills-Griffiths, president of the National League of POW/MIA families, a nonprofit group that supports families of American troops held as prisoners of war and those missing in action, said that Trump's comments were inappropriate.
“Sen. McCain was a prisoner of war who came home with honor but also continued to serve the nation and certainly the cause of America’s veterans returned and unreturned,” Mills-Griffiths said in an interview. “We all need to be grateful for those who did serve with honor.”
John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said in an interview that the group is “assiduously non-partisan” and does not support candidates or comment on political rhetoric.
Rowan said only of Sen. McCain’s service in Vietnam, including his time as a prisoner of war, that “he served his country well.”
But Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, commented that Trump’s remarks were offensive to all veterans who have served overseas.
“Trump’s asinine comments about Senator McCain's service are an insult to everyone who has ever worn the uniform — and to all Americans,” Rieckhoff said on Twitter. “Trump’s stupidity is especially egregious given the death of a Navy Petty Officer just this morning and the death of 4 Marines this week. An attack on one veteran's service is an attack on us all.”
And John W. Stroud, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said: “For someone who never served a day in uniform to criticize the service and sacrifice of a combat-wounded veteran is despicable.”
-- Jenna Johnson in Sioux City and T. Rees Shapiro in Washington contributed to this report.