What would it take for Republican leaders to fully repudiate Donald Trump?
Khizr Khan, the father of fallen Army Capt. Humayun Khan, has called repeatedly for Republican leaders to condemn their nominee’s repeated attacks on his family and Muslim faith. Khan’s tearful pleas have been met instead with carefully worded statements that have largely fallen short.
“There had been some statements coming from the Republican leadership. But there is amazing silence. Silence of rebuke, silence of asking no more,” Khizr Khan said Monday on MSNBC's “Morning Joe.” The party’s nominee has repeatedly attacked Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala Khan, since they appeared the Democratic National Convention to condemn the candidate’s proposed temporary ban on allowing Muslims to come to the U.S.
That ban would have prevented the Khans from immigrating to the nation their son, Capt. Humayun Khan, served while deployed in Iraq, where he died trying to stop a suicide bomber and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Trump’s repeated controversies, potentially unconstitutional proposals and outbursts are forcing his party to confront a painful dilemma: Can they preserve their careers and principles standing by their nominee, or do they stay out of the election or even support Hillary Clinton?
"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,” Sen. Roy Blunt wrote in one of the few statements that actually mentioned Trump, but did not repudiate his party’s nominee.
Sen. John McCain came close, but he did not revoke the endorsement he begrudgingly gave in May.
"I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers or candidates,” McCain wrote in a statement that condemned Trump’s remarks. “It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan issued a defense of the Khan family without once mentioning the nominee he waited months to endorse over his own concerns, then quickly pushed out a photo essay that showed him holding up a pocket Constitutional like the one Khan used to slam Trump. Later on Monday, prompting laughs, Ryan told a room full of Trump skeptics and major donors gathered by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch that "we have a different kind of nominee now. This is unique."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley declared that the Khan family "have the standing to say whatever they want in the political process and should not face criticism for it" — while Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry said in a statement that "service to our country is above politics,” and that said he was "dismayed" by Trump’s remarks.
Dismay was about as harsh as it got for most of the GOP: "We must always honor our veterans, and their families," Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst without mentioning the nominee who she spoke in support of at the the Republican convention.
Khan made an explicit appeal to the party’s top leaders on Capitol Hill, Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They too offered compassion and admiration for the Khans and their son while stopping short of repudiating Trump.
“Capt. Khan was an American hero, and like all Americans I’m grateful for the sacrifices that selfless young men like Capt. Khan and their families have made in the war on terror,” McConnell wrote in a statement. “And as I have long made clear, I agree with the Khans and families across the country that a travel ban on all members of a religion is simply contrary to American values.”
“Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example. His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan—should always be honored. Period,” Ryan said.
In failing to mention the very thing prompting the statement -- their nominee’s attacks on the family they say should be honored -- Ryan and McConnell underscore the party’s deep discomfort with their nominee even as they rally behind him in the general election due to their deeper discomfort with Clinton.
2016 contender and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called Trump’s remarks “so incredibly disrespectful.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also ran in 2016, said "the problem is, ‘unacceptable’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
Of the more than a dozen Republicans put out statements criticizing Trump on Monday, few mentioned his name and none said they wouldn't vote for him over it.
Bush and Graham were the two Republican to criticize Trump without simultaneously supporting him.
Graham, who was critical of Trump throughout the primary season, told NBC News in June — amid Trump's attacks on a Hispanic judge — that he wouldn't support the GOP nominee.
Bush said way back in May that he would not vote for Trump.
But for the rest of his party, support for Trump stems from opposition to Clinton — distaste that's older than Trump's GOP voter registration, even.
"You have 40 years of built-up antagonism by her detractors, and people cannot seem to bring themselves to looking at her through a different lens," explained Doug Elmets, a Republican who spoke at the Democratic convention in support of Clinton.
But Elmets said he received an out-pouring of support after he spoke in support of Clinton at the DNC and the Clinton campaign had approached him about potentially campaigning in battleground states.
"In the 1980s when I was working for Reagan, there were Democrats for Reagan. Well, why not Republicans for Hillary?” he said. “I have a Muslim niece, through marriage, who moved a year ago to the United States from Tehran, who said to me, I thought I was coming to the United States where I would feel free, and I am scared. I’ve got two daughters, a wife, and a son, how do I look at any of them and say I did not stand up, or I was not the voice for you or people exactly like you?”
While Elmets argues that more Republicans will come out to support Clinton in the future as Trump’s controversies grow, and his controversial nature seems likely to grow: Trump has shown little interest in pitching himself as more disciplined in the general election and has repeatedly said he doesn’t regret past controversies — like when in July, 2015 he criticized another war hero, saying that Vietnam veteran McCain was "not a war hero" because he’d been a prisoner of war.
At the time, pundits suggested Trump’s candidacy was doomed; McConnell responded then by saying the primary voters would “sort all this out” and give the party an “outstanding candidate."
Almost exactly a year later to the day, the party’s delegates nominated Trump in Cleveland.
"I don't, you know — I like not to regret anything," Trump said this spring when asked about his controversial remarks on McCain. "You do things and you say things. And what I said, frankly, is what I said. And you know some people like what I said, if you want to know the truth. Many people that like what I said. You know after I said that, my poll numbers went up 7 points.”