It was a moment in the speech that Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have come to dread - when he looks up or away from his notes, and ad-libs for a bit, trying to work up his supporters.
He did that again at a rally in North Carolina on Tuesday afternoon, and caused another firestorm, this time suggesting pro-gun activists might be able to stop his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said, referring to the appointment of Supreme Court judges by Clinton if she were to win the White House.
As some supporters started booing at the possibility, Trump stopped, and added, with a shrug, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects Americans’ right to bear arms, and the gun lobby uses it to block any attempt to reform the country’s notoriously lax gun laws.
Response from Democrats, Trump critics and even some Republicans was swift: He had crossed yet another line, inciting violence against Clinton, even assassination.
Clinton supports some changes in the law to prevent guns, specially assault rifles used in most cases of mass shooting, falling into the wrong hands, as does a majority of the country according to many polls.
Trump’s comment came in that context — he was attacking Clinton’s support for gun law changes, which has been a standard Republican attack line for Democrats.
Then he went off script, setting off another political storm.
“What Trump is saying is dangerous,” said Clinton Campaign chair Robby Mook. “A person seeking to be the president of the United States should not suggest violence in any way."
Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator, went further, with this tweet: “Don’t treat this as a political misstep. It’s an assassination threat, seriously upping the possibility of a national tragedy & crisis.”
The Secret Service, which protects past and present presidents, vice-presidents and presidential candidates and routinely probes all threats against them, said it was aware of the comments.
As he has done in the past, Trump let his aides tackle the row through statements, denials and clarifications that only kept the pot boiling, basically claiming he was not calling for violence.
Trump finally addressed it himself late in the night with Americans glued to their TV sets watching their swimmers and gymnasts amass medals at the Olympics in Rio.
“Media desperate to distract from Clinton's anti-2A stance,” Trump tweeted. “I said pro-2A citizens must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution!”
The “2A” was short for the Second Amendment, but his attempt to pin it on the media, also a standard operating procedure for him and his campaign, didn’t fool anyone.
Speaker Paul Ryan, who easily overcame a primary challenge in his re-election bid for US House on Tuesday, said, “It sounds like just a joke gone bad. I hope he clears it up very quickly.
“You should never joke about something like that,” he added, echoing other Republicans, such as Senator Jeff Sessions, a Trump supporter, who took the same line in a TV interview.
The US Supreme Court bench is currently short by one, from its sanctioned strength of nine, and more positions are expected to open up for the next president to fill through retirements.
Both Democrats and Republicans fear the other side will fill the court with judges aligned with their respective ideology, as is the practice, altering the balance on the bench for many years.