In a rare act of political courage, or of political opportunism, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., became an early and strong supporter of Donald Trump.
Initially, this required ignoring or explaining away Trump’s assertion that John McCain was no war hero and the accompanying implication that prisoners of war in general are losers unworthy of our admiration.
Now it requires that Zinke somehow excuse Trump’s attack on a Muslim family who spoke at the Democratic National Convention about their son, a U.S. soldier who died an undeniably heroic death fighting in Iraq.
In a guest column in Saturday’s Billings Gazette, Zinke tried to get over the hurdle by accusing Trump’s presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton, of equally reprehensible behavior. He wrote: “Both of our candidates for president have picked fights with and said extremely regrettable things to the families of service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation. … Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should swallow their pride and apologize to the families and service members they have offended.”
In an act of glaring false equivalency, Zinke is clearly referring to an attack on Clinton made at the Republican National Convention by Patricia Smith, the mother of an American who died in the Benghazi attack.
Smith essentially makes two claims: First, Clinton is personally responsible for the death of her son and, second, Clinton lied to her about the cause of her son’s death.
Neither claim quite holds up. Eight investigations of Benghazi so far have found no clear evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton. Clinton’s alleged lie in a meeting with families of Benghazi victims has been thoroughly investigated by Politifact, which found conflicting accounts of what was said at that private meeting.
Moreover, Politifact concluded, even if Clinton blamed the attack on a video at the time, it would not be clear that she was lying. In the early days after the attack, information about its cause was uncertain and conflicting. Even today, some of the best intelligence and reporting indicates that there may have been a tie between the attack and an inflammatory video that was circulating on YouTube.
So it is not exactly clear what “regrettable things” she said or what she should apologize for. In Trump’s case, it’s painfully clear. The family of Army Capt. Humayan Khan made the cogent point that had policies Trump favors been in effect when they immigrated to the United States, Khan would never have gotten the chance to serve his country with such distinction.
Khan’s father also asked rhetorically whether Trump had ever read the Constitution. There is no way to know for sure the answer to that question, but if Trump has read the Constitution, he skipped some key provisions.
What’s most telling is the way the two candidates responded to the accusations against them. Trump said that he had been attacked “viciously” and that the Khans had “no right” to claim he had not read the Constitution. He also falsely suggested that Khan’s mother was forbidden to speak.
In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Clinton said this in response to a question about two families of victims at Benghazi: “Chris, my heart goes out to both of them. Losing a child under any circumstances, especially in this case, two State Department employees, extraordinary men both of them, two CIA contractors gave their lives protecting our country, our values. I understand the grief and the incredible sense of loss that can motivate that. As other members of families who lost loved ones have said, that’s not what they heard, I don’t hold any ill feeling for someone who in that moment may not fully recall everything that was or wasn’t said.”
Put Clinton’s words into Trump’s mouth, and Trump’s into hers, and Zinke would have found no equivalency at all. But he has hitched his political career to a man who may be the most unfit, unqualified and ill-tempered major party candidate in U.S. history.
At some point, this is no longer about Trump’s fitness to serve. It’s about the fitness of the elected officials who support him.