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Trump doesn't have 'licence to defame,' says Republican Senator John McCain after Muslim soldier feud

Angry and anxious politicians and veterans groups hastened to disavow Donald Trump's repeated criticism of a bereaved military family Monday, but the Republican 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.

Chorus of criticism over Donald Trump's comments grows among Republicans, Democrats

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a town hall event in Columbus, Ohio. He also spoke at an event in Harrisburg, Pa. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Angry and anxious politicians and veterans groups hastened to disavow Donald Trump's repeated criticism of a bereaved military family Monday, but the Republican 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 Senator 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 those 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 Republicans 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 party's 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:

Trump made two campaign stops after the controversy blew up, Trump spoke at length at a town hall rally in Columbus, Ohio, and another in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday — never once mentioning the Khans.

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 she 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."

Troubling pattern

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 Republican primaries, but he 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 Republicans — many facing re-election this fall — who distanced themselves from Trump's comments Monday.

'This is why I showed him that constitution. Had he read that he would know what status a Gold Star mother holds in his nation," says Khizr Khan 1:05

Mike Coffman, a vulnerable Republican in a competitive Colorado district, said he was "deeply offended when Donald Trump fails to honour the sacrifices of all of our brave soldiers who were lost in that war." Missouri Senator Roy Blunt said the Khans "deserve to be heard and respected."

"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," Blunt said in a statement.

Trump advisers have spent months trying to help the political novice do just that. Aides say Trump often professes to understand the risks of fuelling a controversy, but he can get drawn back in.

'It's just who he is'

"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 (political action committee).

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has advised Trump, said the candidate's inability to back away from a political land mine "makes him vulnerable.... 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 "99 per cent 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."

At the Democratic convention, the Pakistan-born Khizr Khan told his son's story, questioned whether Trump had ever read the Constitution and said "you have sacrificed nothing." During the speech, Ghazala Khan stood quietly by his side.

Trump speculated in an ABC News interview, with excerpts posted on Saturday, that Capt. Khan's mother remained silent last Thursday as her husband spoke because "maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say."

The following day, during an interview with MSNBC, Ghazala Khan said she didn't speak because she's still overwhelmed with grief.

"When Donald Trump is talking about Islam, he is ignorant," she wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that appeared online Sunday. "Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices. He doesn't know what the word sacrifice means."

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Khizr Khan said Trump showed disrespect toward his wife, and that the country needs to be run by someone with a "moral compass."

Trump says he's 'made a lot of sacrifices'; Khan family says presidential candidate 'unfit' to be a leader 2:28