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Trump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes

President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE has sparked a new wave of criticism over his treatment of members of the military after suggesting he may have caught the coronavirus from Gold Star families.

The latest row comes after a series of scandals in which Trump was accused of disparaging service members, giving his political rivals an opening and calling into question whether he can hold on to a bloc of voters seen as central to his base.

With the presidential election now less than a month away and Trump trailing in both national polls and key battleground states, the president can ill afford more incidents that generate negative headlines and risk alienating any service members, veterans or other military supporters.

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“If the polls can be believed, he’s in the stop-the-bleeding phase of the operation,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush. “And he keeps nicking himself, sometimes with paper cuts, sometimes with deeper slices. But whatever it is, it's not the thing that he needs.”

The latest self-inflicted wound came when Trump said he thinks an event at the White House that honored families of slain service members could be the source of his COVID-19 infection.

“I figured there would be a chance that I would catch it,” Trump said in a phone interview with Fox Business host Maria BartiromoMaria Sara BartiromoParler goes dark after move by Amazon Perdue says he would support objecting to Electoral College vote Abrams says concession comparisons to Trump are 'apples to bowling balls' MORE on Thursday. “Sometimes I'd be with, in groups of, for instance, Gold Star families. I met with Gold Star families. I didn't want to cancel that. But they all came in, and they all talked about their son and daughter and father.”

“And I can't back up, Maria, and say, ‘Give me room. I want room. Give me 12 feet. Stay 12 feet away when you talk.’ They come within an inch of my face sometimes,” he added.

“They want to hug me, and they want to kiss me. And they do. And frankly, I'm not telling them to back up. I'm not doing it. But I did say it's like — it's obviously dangerous. It's a dangerous thing I guess if you go by the COVID thing,” he said.

Trump appeared to be alluding to a Sept. 27 event at the White House for Gold Star families. One person who was at that event is known to have since tested positive for the virus: Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Ray.

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None of the Gold Star families are known to have since tested positive as of Friday.

Doctors have not disclosed how or when Trump may have gotten the virus, and White House officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions on when his last negative coronavirus test was.

“Considering it has been 13 days since the event, all Gold Star family are all doing well and exhibit no symptoms of COVID-19,” Timothy Davis, president and chief executive of the Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit that helped families attend the event, said in a statement.

All Gold Star family attendees were tested by the White House medical team before entering the building and tested negative, he added.

The White House has sought to clean up Trump’s comments. Communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters he was not blaming Gold Star families for his infection but rather laying out a timeline of events within the period in which he might have been exposed.

“His point was merely that in the time frame that he was potentially exposed, there were a number of different venues he'd been at and individuals he had interacted with that it could have come from — and by no means are blaming anyone who was present,” Farah said. “And we did take a lot of precautions for that event. So based on contact tracing, the data we have, we don't think it arose from that event."

But Trump did not call out any other recent event specifically, such as the Sept. 26 White House ceremony where he announced his latest Supreme Court nominee. Dozens of attendees and their contacts have tested positive for COVID-19 since that event, which top infectious disease expert Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils virus plan and urges patience | Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden | House to move quickly on COVID-19 relief Fauci: We are not 'starting from scratch' on vaccine distribution Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden MORE referred to as a “superspreader” Friday.

Nor was it the first time Trump appeared to blame military-connected individuals for the White House outbreak.

After close aide Hope HicksHope HicksTrump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus Women set to take key roles in Biden administration MORE tested positive at the beginning of the month, Trump told Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityMcConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism Almost 7 in 10 oppose Trump pardoning himself: poll Can the GOP break its addiction to show biz? MORE that “it’s very, very hard when you are with people from the military or from law enforcement.”

“And they come over to you, and they — they want to hug you, and they want to kiss you because we really have done a good job for them. And you get close, and things happen,” he said.

After Trump’s Gold Star families comments, congressional Democrats pounced.

“Can you believe that he would say such a thing?” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils virus plan and urges patience | Fauci says it's 'liberating' working under Biden | House to move quickly on COVID-19 relief Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 On The Money: Pelosi says House will move immediately on COVID-19 relief | Biden faces backlash over debt | 900,000 more Americans file for unemployment benefits MORE (D-Calif.) asked at her weekly press conference.

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The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, meanwhile, called the remarks “a shocking statement even for this president.”

“Instead of casting aspersions on the families of the fallen for infecting him, President Trump should be transparent about his own actions, who he met with and when, and release detailed medical information including a timeline and do some real contact tracing to help stop the spread,” Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedSenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Senate panel advances Biden Pentagon nominee Overnight Defense: Biden inaugurated as 46th president | Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief | Senate confirms Biden's Intel chief MORE (D-R.I.) said in a statement. “Stop blaming, deflecting and denying, Mr. President, and start leading.”

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthSenate approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee Senators vet Buttigieg to run Transportation Department MORE (D-Ill.), an Army veteran who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, tweeted that Trump “has no shame,” while Marine veteran Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.) tweeted that Trump blaming Gold Star families “when he has been flouting medical advice since day one of the pandemic would be laughable if it weren't so reprehensible.”

“The President who refused to stand up to Putin in defense of our troops is now offloading blame on Gold Star families, who've sacrificed everything for our nation,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerBipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief Social media posts, cellphone data aid law enforcement investigations into riots 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate MORE (D-Va.) said in his own tweet. “It’s time for this President to show respect for our military & take responsibility for his failed #COVID response.”

Warner appeared to be alluding to an alleged Russian plot to offer the Taliban bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Reports about the bounties over the summer caused a firestorm for Trump, who has said he never raised the issue in calls with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinOvernight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' MORE.

Trump also faced a scandal last month over allegations first reported by The Atlantic that he called U.S. troops who died in battle “suckers” and “losers.” He has denied the reporting but fanned the flames of that scandal by then accusing Pentagon leaders of deciding to send forces into war to appease defense contractors.

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The successive scandals have given the Biden campaign ammunition to attack. Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE hit Trump over the “suckers” and “losers” comments at the first presidential debate, though Trump quickly pivoted to attacking Biden’s son Hunter.

At the vice presidential debate on Wednesday, Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris takes up temporary residence at Blair House Amanda Gorman captures national interest after inauguration performance Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (D-Calif.), cited all of those scandals — as well as Trump dismissing troops’ brain injuries in Iraq earlier this year as “headaches” and his repeated criticism of the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg wears 'my vice president' shirt day after inauguration Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader MORE (R-Ariz.) for being a prisoner of war — to argue Trump has a “pattern” of disparaging the military. Vice President Pence defended Trump against “slanders” he described as “absurd.” 

Trump has weathered controversies over his treatment of the military and veterans before. His criticism of McCain dates back to the 2016 election, and during the same cycle, Trump also feuded with a Gold Star family.

But Trump’s political situation is more precarious now, Feaver said.

“It's hard for anything to penetrate and sink in nowadays,” he said. But the White House “went to some length to try to walk that statement back, clarify what the president meant to say, etc., etc., which they don't bother for many of his other equally offensive comments. And so that tells you that the White House political people understand that this is toxic in a way so that even though it's hard for anything to sink in, it may still matter.”