WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Decorated war veteran and US Senator John McCain denounced Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday for his attack on the parents of a Muslim US Army officer killed in the Iraq war.
The Arizona Republican, a leading voice on military matters in the US Congress, waded into the snowballing dispute between his party's controversial nominee and Khizr and Ghazala Khan, issuing the strongest rebuke yet to Trump from a senior Republican on the issue.
"While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us," McCain, who was a prisoner of war for five years during the Vietnam War, wrote in a long statement.
Trump's dispute with the Khans has dominated the election campaign in recent days after Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday night, with his wife standing at his side.
The Khans' son, Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed by a bomb in Iraq in 2004, and the father spoke emotionally of the sacrifice his son had made for the country as an American Muslim, specifically criticising Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country.
In response to the speech, Trump said he had also made sacrifices in his life. He also said that Ghazala Khan might not have been "allowed" to speak, implying her silence reflected restrictions placed on women by some traditional Muslims.
The parents bristled at that suggestion and, in numerous television appearances over the weekend, have said Trump is ignorant about Islam and about their family's sacrifice.
Several leading Republicans have weighed in to express support for the family.
The dispute is the latest in a series of missteps by the freewheeling, unorthodox campaign of the New York businessman, who has never held elected political office but who beat 16 rivals to become the Republican presidential nominee for the Nov 8 election.
Trump's off-the-cuff insults and controversial proposals such as the ban on Muslims and a plan to keep illegal immigrants out by building a wall along the Mexican border, have made many in the party establishment reluctant backers of his White House bid.
In his statement, McCain recalled how Humayun Khan died, saying that when a suicide bomber aimed his vehicle toward a building housing hundreds of US soldiers, the captain told his subordinates to stay away, then ran toward it.
McCain thanked the Khans for coming to America, saying "your son was the best of America, and the memory of his sacrifice will make us a better nation - and he will never be forgotten".
Ghazala Khan wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Sunday saying that she had remained silent during her husband's remarks to cope with making her grief public during the convention.
In their interviews on Monday, the Khans described the outpouring of support they have received during their very public exchange with Trump.
On Sunday, Democratic rival Hillary Clinton said Trump had scapegoated the parents. Leading Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued statements in support of the family.
Trump drew similar opprobrium a year ago when he said McCain, who as a naval aviator was shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, was not a hero since he had been captured.
In an open letter, nearly a dozen so-called Gold Star families - families who lost relatives in wars - said Trump cheapened their sacrifice and called for an apology. "This goes beyond politics. It is about a sense of decency," it said. "That kind decency you mock as 'political correctness.'"