If it was a joke, nobody laughed very loudly.

In comments that once again placed him at the centre of fresh controversy, Donald Trump appeared on Tuesday to suggest that if Hillary Clinton was elected president, the only way to stop her choosing liberal Supreme Court justices would be to shoot her.

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment,” he said, referring to the piece of legislation that gun rights activists claim gives them the right to bear weapons. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the second amendment people, maybe there is.”

Mr Trump’s comment came during a rally in Wilmington, Delaware, and was immediately seized on by commentators as the latest example of the New York tycoon’s offhand language, and willingness to step beyond well beyond what would be considered normal during an election campaign.

As Mr Trump and his supporters sought to defuse the incident and insist he was merely talking about gun rights activists voting for him rather than Ms Clinotn, the Secret Service, which is responsible for the security of the president – as well as the two presidentiall candidates – said it was “aware” of the tycoon’s comments.

Two weeks ago the Republican candidate sparked huge controversy when he called on Russia to hack into Ms Clinton’s emails. The following day, amid outcry from people across the political spectrum, Mr Trump said he was simply joking.

On, Tuesday after, Ms Clinton’s responded to Mr Trump’s comments, saying it was proof of his unsuitability for the office. “This is simple – what Trump said was dangerous. A person seeking to the president of the US should not be suggesting violence in any way,” said a spokesperson.

The comments came one day after 50 senior Republican national officials published a public letter in which they said Mr Trump was inappropriate to occcupy the White House.

“From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be president and commander-in-chief,” said the letter.

“Indeed, we are convinced he would be a dangerous president.”

Among those who signed the high profile people to sign the letter was Gen Michael Hayden, former director of CIA and National Security Agency. On Tuesday, Mr Hayden said on CNN he was startled by Mr Trump’s latest comment.

He said it was either a “very bad taste” joke about political assassination, or simply an indication of Mr Trump’s insensitivity to the prevalanance of assassination in American politics, “and that is something we never come close to”.

Mr Trump’s campaign later rejected that the tycoon was doing anything more than calling for supporters of the Second Amendment to rally around him.

“It’s called the power of unification – 2nd Amendment people have amazing spirit and are tremendously unified, which gives them great political power,” Jason Miller, the campaign’s senior communications adviser, said in a statement.

“And this year, they will be voting in record numbers, and it won’t be for Hillary Clinton, it will be for Donald Trump.”

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