Sen. John McCain lashed out Thursday at Donald Trump by joining other members of the so-called Republican "establishment" in charging that the GOP presidential frontrunner was unqualified to be the next commander-in-chief.
In a statement, the senator lined himself up with the blistering comments of former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who called Trump "a phony, a fraud," and with a letter from 65 Republican leaders on national security issues who labeled Trump's views on the military "unmoored in principle."
McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "Trump's uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security issues" should give Republican voters pause and make them "think long and hard about who they want to be our next commander-in-chief and leader of the free world."
In a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City, Romney singled out Trump's dismissal of calling McCain a "hero" for his Navy service and his resistance to torture as a Vietnam prisoner of war, for which he was awarded the Silver Star.
Last July in Iowa, Trump said of McCain that he was "not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured."
Romney said of Trump, "There is dark irony in his boasts of his sexual exploits during the Vietnam War while John McCain, whom he has mocked, was imprisoned and tortured."
Responding to Romney, Trump said on NCB-TV's "Today" program that Romney's outburst was sour grapes over being a "failed candidate" who had "begged" him for an endorsement in 2012 in his losing race against President Barack Obama. "Mitt Romney is a stiff," Trump said.
Trump also hit back on Twitter: "Looks like two-time failed candidate Mitt Romney is going to be telling Republicans how to get elected. Not a good messenger!"
The letter from the Republican national-security leaders, who described themselves as representing a "broad spectrum of opinion on America's role in the world and what is necessary to keep us safe," included a laundry list of issues on which they disagree with Trump.
"His embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable," the letter stated. "His hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combatting Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world making significant contributions to the effort."
The letter appeared on the website War on the Rocks, which describes itself as "a platform for analysis, commentary, debate and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues through a realist lens."
Among the signatories of the letter were former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff; Fran Townsend, former homeland security and counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush; Eliot Cohen, former counselor to the State Department during Bush's administration; Dov Zakheim, who held Defense Department posts in the Bush and Reagan administrations; and Robert Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank, who was Bush's U.S. trade representative and later served at the State Department.
Many of those signing the letter came from the so-called "neoconservative" wing of the GOP and favored the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
On the campaign trail last month, Trump said President George Bush's decision to invade Iraq "may have been the worst decision any president has made in the history of this country. Whether [George W. Bush] lied or not, it was a horrible decision."
In a campaign appearance in South Carolina, Trump had said that he supported waterboarding and similar interrogation techniques because "torture works" in the questioning of terrorists.
"Don't tell me it doesn't work -- torture works," he said. "OK, folks? Torture -- you know, half these guys [say]: 'Torture doesn't work.' Believe me, it works. OK?"
Trump's campaign remarks on torture posed a dilemma last week for Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford during testimony before a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the defense budget.
Put on the spot about Trump's remarks by Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, Dunford didn't respond directly but made clear that torture was out of bounds for a military that embodies American values.
"One of the things that makes me proud to represent this uniform is that we represent the values of the American people," the general said. While he never mentioned Trump's name, he said, "When our young men and women go to war, they go with our values."
Dunford added, "When we find exceptions," and U.S. troops abuse prisoners, "you can see how aggressively we address those exceptions. We should never apologize for going to war with the values of the American people. That's what we have done historically, that's what we expect to do in the future. And again that's what makes me proud to wear this uniform."
In an appearance last month on "Real Time With Bill Maher," retired Air Force general and former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that stances advocated by Trump during the campaign would pose problems for a military bound by the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and the law of armed conflict.
Hayden pointed to the possibility that service members would be forced to disobey orders from a President Trump. He singled out Trump's numerous comments that the U.S. should kill the family members of terrorists.
"That will make people think. Because they do not care very much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their family's lives," Trump said during a debate of Republican presidential candidates in December.
"Let me give you a punchline -- if he (Trump) were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act," Hayden said.
As a member of the U.S. military, "You are required not to follow an unlawful order," Hayden said. "That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.