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Trump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes

President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report 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 BartiromoMcConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' Giuliani to Tucker Carlson: 'No justification' for FBI raid The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' 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 FauciWatch live: White House holds briefing with COVID-19 response team CDC director: Vaccinated adolescents can remove masks outdoors at summer camps The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney 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 HicksUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Trump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus MORE tested positive at the beginning of the month, Trump told Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityPoll: Americans consider Fox News, NYT, CNN, MSNBC 'mainstream media' Lindsey Graham: GOP can't 'move forward without President Trump' Caitlyn Jenner tells Hannity friends are fleeing California because of homeless people 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 PelosiBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report On The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July 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 ReedOvernight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Overnight Defense: Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform | US troops begin leaving Afghanistan | Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill MORE (D-R.I.) said in a statement. “Stop blaming, deflecting and denying, Mr. President, and start leading.”

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthSu's track record make her an excellent pick for Labor Department post Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill Senate panel advances Biden's Postal Service nominees 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 MoultonOvernight Defense: Iran talks set up balancing act for Biden | Pentagon on alert amid Russian saber rattling | Lawmakers urge Pentagon to be pickier about commanders' requests for more troops Is it okay to waste infrastructure dollars? Lawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot 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 WarnerFacebook board decision on Trump ban pleases no one Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks 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 PutinBiden 'confident' meeting with Putin will take place soon Blinken: US stands with Ukraine in face of Russian aggression Russia keeping 80K troops at border amid NATO exercise, US officials say 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 BidenBiden to meet with 6 GOP senators next week Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit On The Money: Five takeaways on a surprisingly poor jobs report | GOP targets jobless aid after lackluster April gain 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 says Mexico, US can work together to improve quality of life in Northern Triangle Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says 'it is time to pass the baton on to someone else' Harris's uncle discusses COVID-19 surge in India: 'The conditions are pretty bad' 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 McCainEx-McSally aide pleads guilty to stealing over 0K in campaign funds DOJ: Arizona recount could violate civil rights laws Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women 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.”