Donald Trump, as he has repeatedly over the course of his 14-month presidential campaign, said several things over the past week that could have caused lasting damage to any ordinary candidate.
The Republican nominee invited the Russian government to uncover and release Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s private emails. He showed himself to be at best confused and at worst ignorant about the turmoil in Ukraine. He maligned a four-star general as a failure.
All were shocking in their way, although none is likely to register in a broad or lasting way among voters.
Trump’s belittling of the Muslim American parents of a dead U.S. soldier may be different, according to political strategists in both parties, who say the ongoing episode could challenge the notion of Trump as a Teflon candidate.
So far, they say, Trump’s repeated offenses haven’t doomed his candidacy because many voters see each Trump insult as a dagger at political correctness, every blemish a welcome reminder that the celebrity-mogul candidate is willing to take on the established order.
But in the case of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — whose son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, was killed in Iraq in 2004 by a suicide bomb — Trump is taking on grieving parents, not elites or the status quo.
“Nobody minds when he attacks other politicians; in fact, they like it. He’s instilling an accountability that doesn’t exist. But they don’t like it when he goes after real people, and they wish he would stop,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who conducted a focus group about Trump with voters Friday in Columbus, Ohio.
David Axelrod, a former strategist for President Obama, agreed. “I think people appreciate and even enjoy when he kicks the high and mighty in the butt, but I think they recoil when he is unkind to people who are vulnerable or when he is nasty to people who are thoroughly honorable,” he said.
Axelrod added, “I just think people have a fundamental sense of decency, and they want their president to have a fundamental sense of decency, even if they’re tough and willing to take on so-called political correctness.”
Trump lashed out at the Charlottesville family after Khizr Khan admonished Trump at last week’s Democratic National Convention. Trump responded by questioning why Ghazala Khan stood by her husband silently and suggesting that she “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” She has said she was too overcome with grief to speak on stage. Trump also equated his work as a real estate developer to the sacrifice the Khans made when they lost their son in war.
Trump’s response to the Khans was in keeping with his impulse to attack mercilessly whenever he is slighted, a trait that he, his advisers and others believe has generally worked in his favor.
“There are millions of voters who are willing to ignore their discomfort because he is the candidate of change,” Luntz said. “He does go too far and voters don’t like it, but it proves that he is different and it proves that he is absolutely, positively willing to take on the status quo.”
Critics believe that in the case of the Khans, Trump has gone way too far, comparing it to a famed turning point for McCarthyism in the 1950s. Grilled by then-Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy at a congressional hearing as part of the Wisconsin Republican’s crusade to root out communist sympathizers, then-Army counsel Joseph N. Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Initial reports suggest the Khan episode has hurt Trump, at least for now. A pair of national polls taken over the weekend and released Monday showed a sizable bump for Clinton, suggesting the Khan affair, coupled with a successful Democratic convention, was working to her advantage. Clinton led 52 percent to 43 percent in a CNN-ORC survey and 47 percent to 41 percent in a CBS News survey.
Polls consistently show that Trump’s biggest vulnerabilities are on questions of character and temperament. Three-quarters of Americans said Trump does not show enough respect for people he disagrees with, and 55 percent said this was a “major problem,” according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll in May.
Still, Trump’s race with Clinton has remained relatively close through the summer, in part because Clinton is weighted down by her own troubles, chiefly doubts about her trustworthiness.
The latest example came Sunday, when Clinton claimed in a Fox News interview that FBI Director James B. Comey said her past public statements about her use of private email as secretary of state were “truthful.” In fact, Comey has not said whether her public statements were truthful, and he has said some of her emails contained classified information.
Axelrod and other strategists drew parallels between the Khan clash and an earlier episode that similarly touched a nerve: Trump’s mocking at a rally in November of disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski.
Priorities USA, the leading pro-Clinton super PAC, has conducted extensive research to determine the most effective ways to attack Trump and found that video footage of Trump making wild arm and hand gestures to impersonate Kovaleski registers in focus groups as among the most damning. The footage has been featured in numerous anti-Trump ads.
“Voters were willing to overlook comments about Ted Cruz’s family because Ted Cruz is a politician,” said Guy Cecil, the super PAC’s chief strategist. “They may have even been willing to overlook his disgusting comments about John McCain because John McCain is a politician. . . . This is something much meaner. This is something that is completely out of bounds.”
Cecil was referring to Trump’s provocative and unsubstantiated suggestion that Rafael Cruz, the father of the senator from Texas, may have been implicated in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as well as Trump’s belittling of the Vietnam War service of McCain, a senator from Arizona.
Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter, a former adviser to Obama, said Trump’s comments about the Khans are breaking through to voters because they violate people’s expectations of decency and empathy.
“They worry about what kind of role model this sets for their kids,” Cutter said. “They don’t want a president who is insulting people based on their disability or religion or gender or threatening to knock somebody in the head.”
During the Republican primaries, rival campaigns found that political fallout for Trump tended to be limited to the group he was offending. For instance, his incendiary rhetoric about Mexican Americans and illegal immigration hurt him with Latino voters, and his misogynistic commentary hurt him with women.
But research showed that Trump’s mocking of Kovaleski crossed demographic boundaries, said Tim Miller, a top staffer first on former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and later at an anti-Trump super PAC.
“People found that to just be so vulgar and indecent that they just couldn’t help but be turned off by it, even those that wanted to excuse Trump at every step along the way,” Miller said.
He added, “The big question here with the Khan situation is, will that transcend just the Muslim community or just the community of veterans and be something that is universally regarded as inhuman and indecent?”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.