The US Secret Service — tasked with protecting presidential candidates in the run-up to November’s election — said Wednesday it “is aware of the comments” made by Republican nominee Donald Trump that many have interpreted as a threat of violence against his rival Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump says he was referring to the power of the gun rights movement when he said Second Amendment advocates could take action to stop Clinton. He says there’s “no other interpretation.”
Trump’s intended message was not immediately clear, but lawmakers, former national security officials and other critics expressed concern that he had advocated, possibly in jest, that Clinton or her Supreme Court nominees could be shot.
“Hillary wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” Trump told a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, referring to the US Constitution’s clause that enshrines the right to bear arms.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The Secret Service response, communicated via Twitter, gave weight to suggestions the comments may constitute incitement to violence but did not say whether they merited an investigation, which some Democratic lawmakers have called for.
The Secret Service is aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon.
— U.S. Secret Service (@SecretService) August 9, 2016
Defending the comments on Fox News, Trump insisted no one at his rally thought he was saying anything other than that the gun rights movement is effective.
But some supporters at his rally, including one seated behind Trump on camera, seemed to react with surprise to his remark, suggesting they realized it could be taken another way.
It was the latest in a long string of Trump trip-ups, including a long-running clash with the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed in action, that have marred his campaign since he officially won the Republican nomination last month and prompted several Republicans to reject his candidacy.
Clinton’s campaign decried Trump’s “dangerous” language and demanded in a statement that presidential hopefuls “not suggest violence in any way.”
Democratic lawmakers also expressed shock about Trump’s comments.
“In this clip, Trump’s either calling for an armed revolt or the assassination of his opponent. Despicable,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) posted on Twitter along with footage of Trump’s remarks.
Trump’s team fired back to say the Manhattan billionaire simply meant that gun rights advocates were a powerful voting force.
“Second Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” senior Trump communications adviser Jason Miller said.
While Trump himself tweeted that he was simply saying pro-2nd Amendment advocates “must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution,” it is unclear what effort he could be referring to, given that he was talking about a scenario in which Clinton had already successfully appointed a Supreme Court justice.
The National Rifle Association, America’s largest pro-gun lobby, put forth that Trump was correct in saying it would be hard to protect the Second Amendment if Clinton appoints new justices.
— NRA (@NRA) August 9, 2016
At a later rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Trump avoided addressing his controversial comments. But the supporter who introduced him, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, sought to clarify the remarks, insisting Trump had not aimed to incite violence.
“What he meant by that was, you have the power to vote against her,” Giuliani said.
Trump’s repeated stumbles and divisive rhetoric have angered influential Republicans.
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden blasted the “Second Amendment” comments as “very arresting.”
“It suggests either a very bad-taste reference to political assassination and an attempt at humor, or an incredible insensitivity,” he told CNN.
Hayden was among 50 former senior Republican national security officials who warned in an open letter Monday that if Trump were elected he would be “the most reckless president in American history.”
The group’s comments drew a sharp reply from Trump, who painted them as “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power” and saying they should be “held accountable” for making the world less safe.