WASHINGTON (AP) — Angry and anxious, Republican lawmakers and veterans groups hastened to disavow Donald Trump's repeated criticism of a bereaved military family Monday, but the GOP presidential nominee refused to back down. He complained anew that he had been "viciously attacked" by the parents of a Muslim U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, led the charge, saying Trump did not have "unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us." The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation's oldest and largest veterans organization, called Trump out of bounds for tangling with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in 2004.
"Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression," VFW leader Brian Duffy said.
Democratic President Barack Obama chimed in, too, addressing the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta. He said of families who have lost family members in the military service: "No one has given more to our freedom and our security than our Gold Star families. ... They represent the very best of our country."
A growing chorus of GOP lawmakers chastised Trump for sparring with the Khans, who appeared at the Democratic convention on behalf of Hillary Clinton. But like McCain, none revoked his support of the GOP nominee in the White House campaign.
In an emotional appearance at last week's convention, Khizr Khan criticized Trump for proposing to temporarily freeze the entry of foreign Muslims into the U.S. and accused him of making no sacrifices for his country. The billionaire businessman challenged that assertion and also implied Ghazala Khan's religion prevented her from speaking. On Monday, he tweeted that "Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same."
In his first rally after the controversy blew up, Trump spoke at length and took several questions at a town hall rally in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday — never once mentioning the Khans. Nor did he mention them at a Monday night rally in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
But when asked about Khizr Khan on Fox News Channel's "Hannity," Trump responded, "I guess it's part of my life."
"His son died 12 years ago," Trump added. "If I were president, his son wouldn't have died, because I wouldn't have been in the war, if I was president back then."
His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was confronted at an event in Nevada by a woman who said her son serves in the U.S. Air Force. The woman asked Pence how he can tolerate what called Trump's constant disrespect of American service members.
As the crowd jeered the woman, Pence tried to quiet them down. He called the Khans' son "an American hero" and said, "We cherish his family."
For some of Trump's allies, the dispute is just the latest example of a troubling pattern: The real estate mogul hitting back at perceived slights or insults, regardless of the political implications. He has stunned rivals with his ability to survive self-created controversies during the GOP primaries but faces a broader set of voters in the general election.
Indeed, some Republicans said privately that it was the timing of this flare-up that had them on edge— the spectacle of their candidate tangling with a military family just three months before Election Day.
McCain was among several lawmakers — many facing re-election this fall — who distanced themselves from Trump's comments Monday.
Rep. Mike Coffman, a vulnerable Republican in a competitive Colorado district, said he was "deeply offended when Donald Trump fails to honor the sacrifices of all of our brave soldiers who were lost in that war."
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said, "My advice to Donald Trump has been and will continue to be to focus on jobs and national security and stop responding to every criticism whether it's from a grieving family or Hillary Clinton."
Trump advisers have spent months trying to help the political novice do just that. Aides say Trump often professes to understand the risks of fueling a controversy, but he can get drawn back.
"It's just who he is," said Stuart Jolly, a former campaign staffer and current national political director for the pro-Trump Great America PAC.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has advised Trump, said, "He'll have to learn to grow out of it."
While Trump and his allies often blame the media for keeping controversies alive, the businessman himself often fans the flames. After winning the primary, he spent days criticizing a U.S. district court judge's Mexican heritage. He also refused to disavow a campaign tweet about Clinton that appeared to feature the Star of David.
In spite of those storms, Trump remains in a close race for the White House with Clinton. And few Democrats appear ready to declare Trump's criticism of Khan a turning point.
Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said that while "ninety-nine percent of me says this is devastating for Trump," Clinton backers can't assume that another few days of bad headlines will sink a candidate who "simply defies all natural laws of American politics."
Thursday night, the Pakistan-born Khizr Khan told the story of his son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan, and questioned whether Trump had ever read the Constitution. During the speech, Ghazala Khan stood quietly by his side.
Trump responded in an interview with ABC's "This Week," saying: "She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say."
Asked Monday on MSNBC if Trump should apologize, Ghazala Khan said, "I don't want to hear anything from him and I don't want to say anything to him."