By Arit John, Ebony Davis, Aaron Pellish and Kylie Atwood | CNN
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is hammering Donald Trump over his comments mocking the absence of her husband, who is deployed overseas, and using the former president’s remarks to highlight his long history of disparaging members of the military.
The strategy is unlikely to change the dynamics of the GOP primary ahead of her home state’s February 24 primary. But it showcases how her continued presence in the race has presented a thorn in Trump’s side, as she continues to criticize and provoke him in ads, on cable TV and on the campaign trail.
In interviews, fundraising messages and a new digital ad, Haley has framed the former president’s comments as part of an ongoing pattern of disrespect toward military members and their service and says it is further evidence that he would run an undisciplined general election campaign and presidency.
Haley called Trump’s comments “disgusting,” “awful” and “unhinged” during an appearance on “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” Someone who would make such comments doesn’t deserve to be commander in chief, she said.
“If you don’t respect our military, how should we think you’re going to respect them when it comes to times of war, and prevent war and keep them from going?” Haley said Monday. “If you don’t have respect for our military and our veterans, God help us all if that’s the case.”
Haley made the comments after spending most of Monday blasting Trump. During a gaggle with reporters in Elgin, South Carolina, Monday afternoon, she said his comments put servicemembers at risk by implying Trump doesn’t support them and called out his own lack of military experience.
“The most harm he’s ever come across is whether a golf ball hits him on a golf cart,” she told reporters. “And you’re gonna go and mock our men and women in the military? I don’t care what party you’re in, that’s not okay.”
Neither Trump nor Haley has served in the military. Trump avoided being drafted into the Vietnam War due to five deferments, one for bone spurs and four for education.
Her campaign has pointed to several comments Trump has made both publicly or privately over the years.
In September 2020, the Atlantic reported that Trump called soldiers who died in combat “losers” and “suckers” and questioned why veterans buried at Arlington National Cemetery would enlist. John Kelly, a former Trump chief of staff, confirmed several details in the report to CNN last year.
In 2015, during his first presidential run, Trump said he liked “people who weren’t captured” as he attacked Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Three years later, he suggested retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden, should have completed the mission sooner.
On Saturday, Trump noted that Haley’s husband, Michael, has not appeared on the campaign trail with her.
“What happened to her husband? Where is he?” Trump said at a rally Saturday in Conway, South Carolina. “He’s gone.” Michael Haley is an officer of the South Carolina Army National Guard who is currently deployed supporting the US Africa Command.
Throughout her campaign, Nikki Haley has pointed to her husband’s military service to make the case for investing more in services for veterans and to push back on criticisms that she’s too hawkish. Her campaign has said they’ve engaged with voters who were angered by his comments, noting the Palmetto State is home to a large swath of military families.
It’s not clear that hitting Trump over his comments will change the dynamics in the race. A recent Monmouth/Washington Post poll in South Carolina found Haley trailing Trump by 26 points in the state, and her campaign has struggled to outline her path to the nomination.
But her response has demonstrated where Trump might be weak in the general election. On Sunday, President Joe Biden – Trump’s likely general election opponent – defended the Haleys on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“We know he thinks our troops are ‘suckers,’ but this guy wouldn’t know service to his country if it slapped him in the face,” Biden wrote on the site.
For her part, Haley’s criticisms of Trump only intensified on Monday. Her campaign has fundraised off the comments, offering shirts that say “We Love Our Military” to supporters who donate $15 to her campaign.
Also on Monday, her campaign released a digital ad highlighting Trump’s history of disparaging remarks towards members of the military with news clips and video of her response to Trump at a rally in South Carolina over the weekend, in which she called on him to debate her.
“If you mock the service of a combat veteran, you don’t deserve a driver’s license, let alone being president of the United States,” she says in the ad.
And she continued to knock Trump at campaign events in South Carolina Monday.
“You can’t have a commander-in-chief that doesn’t understand what made this country great,” Haley said at a stop in Laurens, South Carolina. “It’s the values, it’s the sacrifice, it’s the freedom. That’s what we fight for every day.”