Donald Trump will not support House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator John McCain in their upcoming primary bids, further widening the rift within the Republican party two weeks after a convention calling for unity.
The Republican nominee’s refusal to back the party’s highest-ranking office holder and a respected senator, who has served for three decades, is an unprecedented step and a sign of the divisions within the party.
As next Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary approaches, Mr Trump walked away from endorsing Mr Ryan, instead lending support to the challenger, Paul Nehlen.
“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Mr Trump told the Washington Post in an interview on Tuesday. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.”
The New York real estate mogul’s comments suggest retaliation for hesitation displayed by Mr Ryan as he was asked to endorse his party’s then-presumptive nominee.
“I’m just not ready to do that at this point,” he told CNN in May. “I’m not there right now.”
In the same interview, Mr Trump said he had a “difficult time” with the Arizona incumbent.
“I’ve never been there with John McCain because I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets,” he said. “He has not done a good job for the vets and I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets.
“So I’ve always had a difficult time with John for that reason, because our vets are not being treated properly. They’re not being treated fairly.”
Mr Trump publicly scorned the Arizona senator last year, when he ridiculed Mr McCain’s record as a prisoner of war, saying: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Early voting begins in Arizona this week, as Mr McCain faces off against two Republican opponents, former state senator Kelli Ward and Tea Party conservative Clair Van Steenwyk. The election is scheduled for 30 August.
On Monday, Mr McCain issued a sharp rebuke of Mr Trump for his remarks to the family of fallen soldier Humayun Khan.
“While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination,” Mr McCain said in a statement, “it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are best among us.”
Despite their criticisms of the GOP candidate, Mr Ryan and Mr McCain still endorse Mr Trump in his presidential bid.
However, the first Republican congressman to break ranks, Representative Richard Hanna from New York, said he will be casting his vote for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, come November.
“I think Trump is a national embarrassment,” Mr Hanna told Syracuse.com. “Is he really the guy you want to have the nuclear codes?”