In September 2008, Donald Trump donated $28,450 to John McCain’s Victory Committee and endorsed him on Larry King Live. “I know him. I like him. I respect him,” he said. “He’s a smart guy and I think he’s going to be a great president.”
Seven years later, Trump is the one running, and he now respects McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, so little that he says he’s not really a war hero.
During a discussion at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa on Saturday afternoon, Trump said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.”
Trump, whose candidacy has been defined by his insults to various groups of people and even entire ethnicities, finally went too far.
Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s comments were “asinine” and an insult “to everyone who’s ever worn the uniform and to all Americans.”
Rick Perry, one of just two Republican primary contenders to have served in the military (the other is Senator Lindsey Graham), called for Trump to withdraw from the contest.
“Donald Trump should apologize immediately for attacking Senator McCain and all veterans who have protected and served our country,” he said in a statement. “As a veteran and an American, I respect Sen. McCain because he volunteered to serve his country. I cannot say the same of Mr. Trump. His comments have reached a new low in American politics. His attack on veterans make him unfit to be Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and he should immediately withdraw from the race for President.”
Lindsey Graham responded to Trump on Twitter: “At the heart of @realDonaldTrump statement is a lack of respect for those who have served—a disqualifying characteristic to be president.”
So did Jeb Bush: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans–particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.”
And Scott Walker: “Just told a crowd in Sioux City: @SenJohnMcCain is a war hero.”
And Bobby Jindal: “After Donald Trump spends 6 years in a POW camp, he can weigh in on John McCain’s service.”
And Rick Santorum: “.@SenJohnMcCain is an American hero, period.”
And Chris Christie: "I know @SenJohnMcCain. Senator John McCain is an American hero. Period. Stop."
Ted Cruz initially stood out as being the only candidate to refuse to stand by McCain, telling The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, “Folks in the press love to see Republican on Republican violence, so you want me to say something bad about Donald Trump or bad about John McCain or bad about anyone else. I’m not going to do it.” Perhaps regretting that decision, Cruz then Tweeted, “John McCain is an American hero. Although we have some policy disagreements, I’m proud to serve alongside him.”
As the crowd in Iowa laughed, gasped and booed—unsure if Trump was joking—he doubled down on his point. “He’s a war hero because he was captured! OK? I believe, perhaps, he’s a war hero. But right now? He’s said some very bad things about a lot of people.”
Actually, he’s said very bad things about just one person who Trump cares a lot about: Trump.
On Thursday, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza published an interview with McCain, wherein the Arizona senator criticized Trump, who had just held a rally in Phoenix. “This performance with our friend out in Phoenix is very hurtful,” McCain said. “Because what he did was he fired up the crazies.”
It would become evident, in the following days, that Trump—callous and bombastic by nature—had hurt feelings.
He immediately lashed out first on Twitter, saying “The thousands of people that showed up for me in Phoenix were amazing Americans. @SenJohnMcCain called them ‘crazies’—must apologize!” He then said he thought McCain should lose his Senate primary: “.@SenJohnMcCain should be defeated in the primaries. Graduated last in his class at Anapolis--dummy!”
And then in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Friday. “I’m a loyalist,” he said. “I’m a person that like, if somebody is with me, I’m with that person. And John McCain was very disloyal to me.”
Saturday afternoon, in a statement following his insult to McCain, Trump said that McCain, whose office has not yet responded to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, had been “disrespectful” to the people who came to see him speak in Phoenix when he told The New Yorker they were “crazies.”
“These were not ‘crazies,’” Trump said. “These were great American citizens.”
Trump’s decision to criticize McCain’s military record is all the more puzzling given the circumstances surrounding his lack of one.
Trump claimed, in an April interview on WNYW, that he avoided the Vietnam War because “I actually got lucky because I had a very high draft number.” He said, while attending the Wharton School of Finance, that “I was watching as they did the draft numbers and I got a very, very high number and those numbers never got up to me.”
But The Smoking Gun reported that Trump’s draft number was 365, and when it was drawn on Dec. 1, 1968, “18 months after Trump graduated” from the Wharton School, Trump “had already received four student deferments and a medical deferment,” according to records obtained by the publication.
Rieckhoff joked, “He was so interested in seeing the president’s birth certificate, I’m sure he’d be willing to provide the documentation about that.”
Despite his lack of service, Trump, in the post-insult statement, said, “I am not a fan of John McCain because he has done so little for our Veterans and he should know better than anybody what the Veterans need, especially in regards to the VA. He is yet another all talk, no action politician who spends too much time on television and not enough time doing his job and helping Vets.”
It was, in fact, McCain (along with Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination) who last year passed legislation to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs and improve veterans’ access to health care, among other things.
In the statement, Trump clarified that he has “great respect for all those who serve in our military including those that weren’t captured and are also heroes.”
The release ended with a “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.”