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Trump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline 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 BartiromoMeadows criticizes veteran journalist Lesley Stahl as an 'opinion journalist' Greenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump 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: White House seeks to clarify press release claiming pandemic over | Fauci: COVID vaccine likely not available until next year Fauci: COVID-19 vaccine likely not available until next year Kushner told Woodward in April Trump was 'getting the country back from the doctors' 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 Charlotte HicksTrump says ex-staffer who penned 'Anonymous' op-ed should be 'prosecuted' Documents show Trump campaign ignored coronavirus guidelines at Duluth rally: report Trump aide won't get into whether Trump has done debate prep MORE tested positive at the beginning of the month, Trump told Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityTrump calls Fox 'disappointing' for airing Obama speech Graham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name 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 PelosiPelosi: Trump should accept election results 'like a man' The spectre of pension failures haunts this election Microsoft: Iranian hacking group targeting attendees of major international security conferences 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 ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger Senate Democrats want hearing on Pentagon vaccine effort Governors urge negotiators to include top priorities in final 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 DuckworthTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Ocasio-Cortez discusses family planning, possibly freezing her eggs Amy Coney Barrett's extreme views put women's rights in jeopardy 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 MoultonTrump slight against Gold Star families adds to military woes Overnight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified Bipartisan congressional task force recommends extending nuclear treaty with Russia 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 WarnerHillicon Valley: Big Tech hearing the most partisan yet | Rubio warns about foreign election interference | Trump campaign site briefly hacked Rubio warns that election interference may ramp up around Election Day Senate Intel leadership urges American vigilance amid foreign election interference 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 PutinThe US must not lose the cyberwar with Russia Chechen leader: Macron's stance on Muhammad cartoons 'forcing people into terrorism' Russia implements national mask mandate as coronavirus cases rise 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 BidenHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings 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 HarrisTrump fights for battleground Arizona Biden to air 90-minute radio programs targeting Black voters The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden's big battleground | Trump and Harris hit the trail in Arizona | Turnout surges among new voters 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 McCainTrump fights for battleground Arizona Flake cuts ad for Biden: 'Character' matters Obama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions 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.”