It was a comment that many thought then would end Trump's presidential ambitions — and it's one that Trump continues to refuse to apologize for, even if he has subtly acknowledged that it was perhaps the wrong thing to say about the senator who was captured in 1967 and held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for more than five years.
Following a policy speech in Virginia Beach on Monday afternoon, a reporter from WAVY-TV, the NBC affiliate for the Hampton Roads area, interviewed Trump and noted that many veterans continue to be offended by Trump's year-old comment. He asked Trump if he would like to apologize for what he said.
"No, I've said it," Trump said. "And, you know, I was disappointed with John, because I think much more work should have been done for our veterans. We have not done the good job for our veterans, and I will take care of our veterans, and the veterans know that. And I will say that in terms of polls, I am doing better — by far better — than anybody with respect to the veterans. No, I was very disappointed with the work done for our veterans. And we're going to make it good for them again. We have to make it good for them again. They are great people, and we have done a very poor job."
McCain's office pushed back against Trump's accusation that the senator has not done enough for veterans, pointing out that one of McCain's top priorities is fixing the broken veterans' health-care system and that he has pushed a series of key reforms.
"He was the driving force behind the 2014 legislation, which produced the most significant reforms to the VA in decades, and the lead sponsor of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act,"said Rachael Dean, a spokeswoman for McCain. "However, Senator McCain is the first to argue there is still work to be done -- the VA system is painfully bureaucratic, slow to change and to react. He is currently fighting to get his Care Veterans Deserve Act passed so that all veterans have the choice and flexibility they want in their health care, and get the help they need now."
Trump made his non-hero comment barely a month into his campaign on July 18, 2015, at the Family Leader Summit in Ames, Iowa. Sitting before a large audience of evangelical voters, Trump answered questions from Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Within two minutes of taking the stage, Trump and Luntz became embroiled in a discussion about political correctness.
Luntz challenged Trump to defend things he has said that are not particularly presidential, like referring to illegal immigrants as rapists and criminals or calling McCain a “dummy.” Trump defended himself on all of these counts — especially McCain, who had recently told the New Yorker that Trump's fringe immigration reform proposals had "fired up the crazies."
“‘Crazies.’ He called them all crazy,” Trump said. “I said: They weren't crazy, they were great Americans. … I know what crazy is. I know all about crazies. These weren’t crazy.”
As Trump called McCain “not so hot” and a “loser,” the crowd laughed and Luntz jumped in: “He’s a war hero! He’s a war hero! He’s a war hero!”
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said, scoffing. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you. He’s a war hero because he was captured, okay? And I believe perhaps he’s a war hero. But right now he said some very bad things about a lot of people.”
The contentious interview continued for another 20 minutes, but the headlines had already been written. Trump came bounding off the stage and asked his campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski, how it went.
“I said: ‘If you have a second, I’d like to speak to you over here in this green room,’” Lewandowski recalled telling his boss during an interview with The Washington Post this spring. “And I closed the door and I said: ‘Holy smokes!’”
Lewandowski remembers repeating back what his boss said on stage and candidly telling him just how offensive it was. Trump quickly decided he needed to do a news conference and explain himself. The news conference lasted nearly 30 minutes and it was, in Lewandowski’s words, “brutal.” Journalists hammered Trump again and again on what he had said about McCain. Trump refused to apologize — just as he would later refuse to apologize for a number of other controversial comments on the campaign trail — but he explained why he’s not afraid to go after McCain, accusing him of not doing enough to protect veterans and strengthen services for veterans.
It's a defense that Trump has continued to use again and again, as the comment continues to haunt him. Even as McCain has shown that he seems willing to help Trump get elected, Trump has refused to apologize for what he said.
At the time, McCain defended the strides that he has made on veterans' issues, especially when it comes to trying to combat the high number of veterans who commit suicide.
"He doesn’t owe me an apology. I’m in the arena," McCain told the Arizona Republic at the time. "But he does owe an apology to every single veteran who was captured and was a prisoner of war."
In September, Trump appeared on NBC's Tonight Show, and host Jimmy Fallon asked him if he has ever apologized for anything, even when he was a child, "little Donny Trump."
"I fully think apologizing's a great thing — but you have to be wrong," Trump said as Fallon laughed and then put his head in his hands. "I will absolutely apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I am ever wrong."