WILMINGTON, N.C. — Donald Trump was ticking through a list of reasons to support him over Hillary Clinton on Tuesday when he decided to linger on one.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said with a shrug at a rally here after accusing Clinton of wanting to strip Americans of their gun rights. He paused, then softly offered a postscript: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The denouncements came swiftly from Clinton’s campaign and her allies — and from outside politics. The insinuation, critics said, was that Trump was inciting his followers to bear arms against a president in the future. And Trump’s response was just as swift: He’d said nothing of the sort but was merely encouraging gun rights advocates to be politically involved.
The pattern has repeated itself again and again. First come Trump’s attention-getting expressions. Then come the outraged reactions. The headlines follow. Finally, Trump, his aides and his supporters lash out at the media, accusing journalists of twisting his words or missing the joke. It happened last week, when Trump appeared to kick a baby out of a rally, then later insisted that he was kidding. It happened the week before, when he encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, then claimed he was just being sarcastic.
And with each new example, Trump’s rhetorical asides grow more alarming to many who hear them — and prompt condemnations from an ever-wider universe of critics. On Tuesday, for instance, even Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, struggled to fully embrace his comments. Sessions insisted in an interview on CNN that Trump did not mean to encourage violence, but he acknowledged that Trump’s words were “awkwardly phrased.”
People from other corners weighed in, too. “As the daughter of a leader who was assassinated, I find #Trump’s comments distasteful, disturbing, dangerous,” tweeted Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “His words don’t #LiveUp. #MLK.”
The Secret Service acknowledged Tuesday in a tweet that agents were “aware” of the episode.
Trump’s most dedicated fans said they understood what he was saying, and they scoffed at the reaction of Democrats and the headlines from newspapers and news shows.
“In no way was he threatening Hillary,” said Sarah Smith, a 72-year-old retiree who attended the rally in Wilmington where Trump made the remark. “Anybody who thinks that is delusional.”
James Renaud, 66, said he took the comment “at face value,” meaning gun owners have to mobilize lest Clinton is able to stack the Supreme Court. “It was just off-the-cuff talking.”
And Keri Malkin, 49, said she didn’t “hear it that way at all,” suggesting that the insinuation that the comment was a threat against Clinton was engineered by her supporters.
“Hillary lies a lot, so it’s no surprise that her supporters would lie,” Malkin said.
But Trump’s rhetorical asides appear to be taking a toll among the electorate overall. Many voters find his remarks distasteful, even given his explanations. The possibility that he was joking or being sarcastic, or that he meant something other than what some people heard, doesn’t alter the growing view that Trump is reckless with his words.
Each day brings new polls showing the Republican nominee lagging Clinton nationally and in several key battleground states. The surveys show widespread uncertainty about whether Trump has the temperament to serve as president — a doubt that his ever-replenishing supply of rhetoric continues to feed.
“Don’t treat this as a political misstep,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a Clinton supporter and a staunch gun-control advocate. “It’s an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis.”
Trump has made concerted efforts to counter such concerns; Monday, he delivered an economic policy address in Detroit that many anxious Republicans had hoped would reset a campaign that had flailed for more than a week after Trump’s attacks on the Muslim American family of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq.
But part of the pattern of Trump’s controversies is that they often step on his efforts to broaden his appeal, as they seemed to in this instance.
He also sometimes grabs the media spotlight away from Clinton when he’d be better off letting her keep it. That happened Tuesday, too, when Clinton was dealing with an unwelcome distraction: the revelation that the father of the gunman in the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June had secured a prime seat at her rally Monday in Kissimmee, Fla.
On Tuesday, it was not immediately clear whether Trump was inciting gun owners to use their weapons against judges or a sitting president — or was encouraging some other action. Trump spokesman Jason Miller released a statement just moments after the comment, swatting down the idea that the mogul was doing anything other than encouraging political action.
At an event in Fayetteville, N.C., later in the day, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended Trump while introducing him. “What he meant by” his comment, Giuliani said, was that “you have the power to vote against” Clinton.
Later Tuesday, Trump appeared on Fox News, where he described the “strong, powerful movement” in the United States to protect the Second Amendment. “There can be no other interpretation,” he said. “Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break.”
Meanwhile, Clinton and her supporters on Capitol Hill and in the pro-gun-control community said they saw Trump’s words in a very different way.
“@realDonaldTrump makes death threats because he’s a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl,” tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a regular Trump critic.
“This is simple — what Trump is saying is dangerous,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement. “A person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way.”
The campaign also quickly dashed off a fundraising solicitation after the episode, emailing supporters: “We don’t know how many children were watching him today, absorbing the kind of violence and hate that Trump is peddling.”
What may have been lost in the flap was the substance of Trump’s accusation against Clinton: that she wants to overturn the Second Amendment, and plans to appoint judges and justices to the federal judiciary who would help her do that.
“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment,” he said. “By the way, and if she gets to pick — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Clinton has never said she wants to eliminate the Second Amendment. Even if she did, neither the president nor the Supreme Court nor lower-level federal judges have the power to do so. There are two ways to alter the Constitution. One requires a two-thirds vote of Congress and then approval by three-fourths of the nation’s state legislatures. The other requires calling a constitutional convention and, again, approval by three-fourths of the states.
One common thread linking many of Trump’s more controversial comments and actions is that he denies having said or done them. Trump claimed never to have mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, despite a widely disseminated video clip showing him making jerking movements with his arms. He claimed that he never said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is not a war hero, despite a Q&A in which he said just that.
He said he never advocated intervention in Libya, though he did.
Trump also relies regularly on the turn of phrase “many people are saying” to make pronouncements without offering evidence backing them up.
On Monday, for instance, he tweeted: “Many people are saying that the Iranians killed the scientist who helped the U.S. because of Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails.”
“Mr. Trump’s tweets speak for themselves,” said Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
Trump and his allies often blame the media for misconstruing his words. The statement issued by his campaign after his Tuesday comments appeared under the heading: “Trump Campaign Statement On Dishonest Media.”
Sullivan reported from Washington. Abby Phillip in Austin, David Weigel in Washington and Jenna Johnson in Wilmington contributed to this report.