Some 20 minutes after an appearance at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, that would dominate the news in the coming days, Donald Trump walked into the industrial-looking basement area designated for press conferences, surrounded by tough-looking men in slick business suits, ostensibly there to provide security but whose real role, one suspects, was to make the man they were following feel important. A wooden podium faced nearly a dozen television cameras and twice as many journalists, all arrayed in a semicircle about 10 feet away.
On stage, Trump had spoken about religion generally—“I love church” and “I love religious people.” And he’d shared his personal faith—“I take the little wine and the little crackers.” But if Trump believes in God, he appears to worship himself, and if there is no afterlife in a faith tradition that values publicity more than anything else, Trump doesn’t seem to mind. As he looked out at the reporters ready to capture his every word, and the cameras that would broadcast them to the world, Trump couldn’t hide the satisfaction that crept across his face.
This is heaven.
Trump, as the world would soon learn, had just mocked Senator John McCain for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Responding to McCain’s comment that Trump’s campaign had “fired up the crazies,” Trump first said McCain was “not a war hero” before amending that observation with another. “He’s a war hero because he was captured.” And then: “I like people who weren’t captured.” Many audience members gasped in disbelief. A chorus of murmurs—what did he say?—gave way to a smattering of boos. Trump seemed taken aback by the reaction for just a moment. Pressed by moderator Frank Luntz, Trump allowed that “perhaps he’s a war hero,” but resumed his attack by snickering that McCain “was last in his class” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
It was immediately obvious that this would be a problem for Trump. A typical politician would be terrified of facing a gaggle of reporters after such oral feculence. A normal human might feel some contrition for suggesting that a man shot down flying combat missions could have avoided captivity, or belittling a man who was tortured after refusing to divulge information about his mission, or mocking a prisoner of war who turned down the early release offered because of his father’s prominence.
He spent the better part of his press conference shrugging off any suggestion that he’d done anything wrong. Asked if he’d apologize to McCain, Trump said: “No.” Asked why he’d say he likes people who weren’t captured, Trump sniffed: “I like the people that don’t get captured and I respect the people that do get captured.” Asked if he’d ever read an account of McCain’s captivity, Trump sneered: “It’s irrelevant.”
In the days that followed, Trump’s defenders, including the man himself, would point to a “fact check” written by reporter Sharyl Attkisson as exculpatory. Trump had conceded that McCain was a war hero, they argued, so suggestions to the contrary were unfair, and a Washington Post story that reported Trump had claimed McCain was not a war hero was deemed “inaccurate.” It was a conclusion that required ignoring one obvious fact: The entire point of Trump’s commentary was to mock McCain. He conceded that McCain was a war hero only to mock the senator for having been captured. It was such a silly defense that Trump didn’t even try to use it as he parried questions from reporters after his appearance in Ames.
The whole episode played out like a scene from a far-fetched satire of American politics—a pompous windbag with thought-provoking hair and a proclivity for childish put-downs mocks a decorated war hero for . . . having been captured. And he does so in the pursuit of votes for the highest office in the land.
Most of the other Republicans denounced Trump, and the story dominated coverage of the race for much of the week. Ben Carson, asked whether McCain was a war hero, said, “it depends on your definition of a war hero.” Ted Cruz, who is no doubt hoping to inherit the Trump voters when they abandon the real estate magnate, has been friendliest to Trump. At first, he refused to criticize Trump, citing an unwillingness to get drawn into Republican infighting stoked by the media—an odd claim for a senator who has made his name by disparaging other Republicans, often with justification.