Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump unleashed a political firestorm with baffling comments he made Tuesday about gun rights advocates and what they could do to prevent his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, from nominating Supreme Court justices if she won the election.
Some elected officials and former national security leaders said the comments could be interpreted as a veiled threat or incitement to violence.
Late Wednesday, actress and author Patti Davis, daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, posted a message to Trump on Facebook, reminding him that her father was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981, which he survived.
She said Trump’s “glib and horrifying comment” was heard around the world, and could be heard by someone with dark fantasies “looking for ideas.”
Davis ended her post with: “Yes, Mr. Trump, words matter. But then you know that, which makes this all even more horrifying.”
The Second Amendment protects people's right to keep and bear firearms.
Trump and his campaign staff say the candidate simply wanted to rally gun rights supporters to unite and use their political power to defeat Clinton. Trump accused the media of trying to twist the comments into a threat, saying there was no way they could be interpreted that way.
But Clinton’s campaign called the comments dangerous. And Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell of California called on the Secret Service to investigate Trump, saying people should be taken at their word.
The Secret Service is charged with protecting presidential candidates.
A Secret Service official told VOA there had not been a formal meeting of the agency with members of the Trump campaign about the comments. The official, who did not want to be named, said Secret Service agents have been with Trump for months, protecting him on the campaign trail, and there may have been informal conversations.
The Secret Service official emphasized that the service is an apolitical government agency that does not want to be drawn into the political battles of an election campaign.
Obligated to investigate
But former Secret Service agent Marisa Randazzo told VOA that any time there is a threat to someone the agency is protecting — a direct threat, a conditional threat or a veiled threat — the Secret Service is obligated to investigate.
Randazzo is a national expert on threat assessments, now with Sigma Threat Management Associates in northern Virginia. She worked for the Secret Service as chief research psychologist.
She spoke only in general terms, but said Secret Service professionals who get word someone might be a potential threat gather more information about that person, what the person is saying and doing, and whether the person might be on a pathway to violence.
Randazzo said there are threats to candidates in every presidential campaign, and that Secret Service agents always have to balance people’s right to freedom of speech with keeping candidates and their family members safe from harm.
WATCH: Trump suggests 'Second Amendment people' act against Clinton
On Tuesday, Trump said to a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina: "Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her [Supreme Court] judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know. But ... I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day."
Michael Hayden, former CIA director and National Security Agency director, told CNN that if someone else outside the hall had said that, he would soon have been sitting in the back of a police car with the Secret Service questioning him.
Hayden added: "That was more than a speed bump. That is actually a very arresting comment. It suggests either a very bad taste with reference to political assassination and an attempt at humor or an incredible insensitivity — maybe the latter — an incredible insensitivity to the prevalence of political assassination inside of American history."
Republicans pull support
Hayden was one of 50 high-profile foreign policy and security experts from Republican administrations who signed an open letter Monday calling Trump unfit for the presidency because he would "put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”
For the second time this week, more than 70 party members, including former congressmen and senior members of the Reagan administration and both President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, drafted a letter Thursday to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, saying they would not support Trump for president.
They said they wanted the RNC to stop using Republican money, time, staff and advertising to support Trump, and instead use those resources for House and Senate candidates. They said Trump's chances of winning in November were "evaporating by the day."