This post has been updated.
"He's a war hero because he was captured," Trump said. "I like people that weren't captured."
The online response (for what it's worth) was immediate and harsh. Many pointed to the fact that Trump had received deferments that let him avoid service in Vietnam. In an ensuing press conference, Trump blamed a bone spur, among other things. A subsequent written statement offered that Trump has "great respect for all those who serve in our military including those that weren't captured and are also heroes." (And ends with: "Note, Mr. Trump left to a long lasting standing ovation, which will be by far the biggest ovation of the weekend, and much congratulatory praise.")
Unsurprisingly, his primary opponents criticized him as well, at varying degrees of severity.
Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans - particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) July 18, 2015
Just told a crowd in Sioux City: @SenJohnMcCain is an American hero— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) July 18, 2015
.@SenJohnMcCain, like every other POW, went through hell & has earned our respect & gratitude— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 18, 2015
.@realDonaldTrump's comments today make him unfit to be Commander-in-Chief https://t.co/EVl1X66gHo— Rick Perry (@GovernorPerry) July 18, 2015
I know @SenJohnMcCain. Senator John McCain is an American hero. Period. Stop.— Chris Christie (@ChrisChristie) July 18, 2015
.@SenJohnMcCain is an American hero, period.— Rick Santorum (@RickSantorum) July 18, 2015
After Donald Trump spends six years in a POW camp, he can weigh in on John McCain's service— Gov. Bobby Jindal (@BobbyJindal) July 18, 2015
As CBS' John Dickerson pointed out on Twitter, Trump's comment allows establishment Republicans who disagreed with Trump's much more vituperative comments about Mexican immigrants to at last lay into him or write him off. Several of Trump's primary opponents were loathe to respond to his immigration comments with much ferocity. But defending illegal immigrants requires a higher political investment than defending former prisoners of war. Ted Cruz, Trump's most reliable defender on the immigration remarks, declined to condemn these comments, either.
Voters may react differently. Given the increasing number of times Trump has made outlandish comments that have been disproven or rebuked -- and that Trump has nonetheless steadily risen in the polls -- it's easy to envision Trump not paying much of a price this time, either.
Among the conservative voters that rallied to Trump's side after his attacks on immigration, McCain is hardly a favorite. (Some laughter can be heard in the audience following Trump's comment.) But for less fervent voters who liked the idea of straight-shooting Donald Trump who was the only guy talking about immigration, the comments will likely cause some reconsideration of support. Average Republican voters support deporting illegal immigrants. They are far more likely, however, to support military service.
RNC BLASTS TRUMP: "There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably."— Ed O'Keefe (@edokeefe) July 18, 2015
It's worth noting that Trump endorsed McCain during the latter's 2008 bid for the presidency. At the time, Trump said that McCain was "a man worthy of respect." He continued: "And this country no longer has respect. What we need more than anything else is just that word: Respect."
Trump, asked if he'll apologize to McCain: "No."— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) July 18, 2015