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But Trump's comments have angered some 9/11 first responders because they say he didn’t support their efforts to get Congress to pass a bill funding their health care.
“Talk is cheap,” Rich Alles, a deputy chief in the New York City Fire Department, said of Trump’s recent comments. “I’m mortified that he can stand in front of the nation ... and wrap himself in the flag.”
Facing the expiration of the James Zadroga Act in October -- a law passed in 2010 to fund health care for more than 70,000 sick first responders and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund -- Alles and other advocates asked all the presidential candidates to support a bipartisan bill to permanently fund the programs.
Trump’s campaign did not return multiple letters and calls requesting his support for reauthorizing the Zadroga Act last fall, said Alles, who drafted the letters to the candidates as a board member of the group Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act. The campaign also did not respond to requests for comment from reporters covering the story at the time.
“It frustrated the hell out of me because he’s such a supporter of law enforcement,” said Anthony Flammia, a retired NYPD officer and registered Republican who said he hasn’t settled on which presidential candidate he'll be voting for. “He didn’t even comment on it.”
“When we needed him on important legislation, he couldn’t respond back. It was a simple yes or no question,” said Alles, a registered Democrat who plans to support Hillary Clinton.
After a prolonged lobbying battle -- and a nudge from comedian Jon Stewart -- Congress passed the permanent funding extension in a year-end $1 trillion spending deal in December.
By then, all three Democratic presidential candidates and at least four Republican candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, endorsed the Zadroga extension. Cruz, whose staff met with first responders on the bill, did not take a public position, and eventually, voted against the spending deal in December.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Trump and the Zadroga Act.
Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Trump has fended off repeated jabs from Cruz over his political history with references to New York City’s recovery from the 2001 attacks.
“The people in New York fought and fought and fought,” Trump said in the Republican presidential debate Thursday. “We rebuilt downtown Manhattan.”
John Feal, a registered Democrat who has voted for candidates of both parties and lost part of his foot working at Ground Zero, called Trump’s comments “crap.”
Trump directly referenced 9/11 first responders Sunday in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, after calling Cruz’s attack a “disgrace.”
“I mean think about ... the firemen. The firemen that went up those buildings,” he said.
Gene Kelty, an FDNY battalion chief diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014 after working at Ground Zero, said the business mogul sounded like a “typical politician” by evoking New York and first responders after not supporting the Zadroga Act.
“I was disappointed by that,” said Kelty, a registered Democrat who said he would support Trump over Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, in the general election.
Rep. Peter King, R-New York, an original cosponsor of the Zadroga Act in the House, said Trump “can speak for himself about what he has done since 9/11,” and called his recent comments “appropriate and necessary” after Cruz’s comments.
Kenny Specht, a retired New York City firefighter and registered Republican and Trump supporter, said Cruz was more at fault as a member of Congress who didn’t back the bill.
“I would have a very big issue if Donald Trump was a sitting senator and didn’t support the bill,” he said.