WASHINGTON: The uproar over Donald Trump's criticism of a bereaved Army family put vulnerable GOP senators in a tight spot, underscoring anew the political challenges created for Republicans by their newly minted presidential nominee. And with the general election campaign now squarely underway, the firestorm over Trump's attacks on the Khan family is likely just a taste of trials to come as Republicans negotiate how closely to align with their volatile nominee.
Senate Republicans running for re-election weighed in one after another Monday to condemn Trump's repeated attacks on the parents of slain U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, with former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain of Arizona leading the charge. And in an op-ed Tuesday, a New York congressman became the first House Republican to announce that he would vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
McCain issued a lengthy statement insisting that Trump has no right "to defame those who are the best among us" and pleading: "I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates."
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said Trump's comments "are not in line with my own beliefs about how the members of the military and their families should be treated."
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said that "Captain Khan is an American hero in every sense of the term and the Khans deserve our sincerest gratitude."
Yet as Democrats were quick to point out, most of the Republicans criticizing Trump had already declared their plans to vote for him for president, and despite their collective outrage, none of them withdrew their support. Several, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, avoided mentioning the billionaire by name.
"No matter what Trump has said or done — from shameful personal attacks to racist outbursts — John McCain has blindly pledged to 'support the nominee," said Max Croes, campaign manager for McCain's Democratic opponent, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, in one typical response from a Democratic Senate campaign.
"McCain's window to take a principled stand and abandon Trump has closed. There is no post-primary redemption for John McCain," Croes added, in a reference to McCain's Aug. 30 primary face-off against a tea party-backed conservative.
The furor surrounds Trump's accusations against Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004. Trump complained that Khizr Khan was "viciously attacking" him by appearing on stage at last week's Democratic National Convention holding up a copy of the Constitution, questioning whether Trump had even read it and asserting the billionaire had sacrificed nothing. Trump has responded by insisting he had made sacrifices and questioning why Ghazala Khan did not speak on stage, which she later said was because she was too bereaved.
It's just the latest Trump-created conundrum for Republican senators who need support from Trump's enthusiastic backers to win re-election, but risk alienating moderate Republicans, independents, minorities and women if they embrace the GOP nominee too closely.
"There's no question that Donald Trump is making it very difficult for House and Senate candidates who are running on the ballot in November," said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "In an ideal world we would have a candidate who would appropriately recognize his comments and apologize for them, but that's not the situation right now."
Writing in the Syracuse Post-Standard, GOP Rep. Richard Hanna said it's not enough to denounce Trump's comments. "He is unfit to serve our party and cannot lead this country." The lawmaker, who has announced his retirement, said that while he disagrees with Clinton on many issues, "I trust she can lead."
Candidates have also wrestled with whether to appear alongside Trump when he campaigns in their states. When Trump appeared Monday in Columbus, Ohio, vulnerable GOP Sen. Rob Portman was not on-hand; aides said he was doing previously scheduled events related to opioid legislation he has sponsored, although his schedule appeared to have him near-by. Grassley's aides also cited scheduling conflicts as the reason Grassley did not attend Trump events in Iowa last week.
Burr, on the other hand, joined Trump on the campaign trail in Winston-Salem, North Carolina last week, and other campaigns, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's, have said they're open to joint appearances with Trump. Trump is backed by all but two vulnerable GOP senators — Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is still in a "wait and see" mode, and Mark Kirk of Illinois, who withdrew his endorsement after Trump's attacks on a U.S. judge of Mexican heritage.