PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the endorsement of a New England union that represents police and corrections officers Thursday evening, and said that, as president, he would call for the death penalty for any person who kills a cop.
The endorsement from the New England Police Benevolent Association comes as Trump remains under scrutiny for his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." The proposal has been panned as xenophobic and un-American by many of Trump's rivals, Republican leaders and others around the world.
Executive board members who attended a closed-door meeting to cast their votes said that Trump's comments had come up briefly in their discussion. But they said that most of the conversation had centered on his past comments in support of police.
Trump was also the only invited candidate to show up to the meeting, said Jerry Flynn, the NEPBA's executive director. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also responded to their invitation, but was unable to attend, he said.
"Listen, our message very clear: It's what is the next president of the United States going to do to unite this country in an effort to save police officers? Because it's open season on police officers," Flynn said before the vote.
"At this point, those of us who are supportive of any party have to look at what is the best interest of our members," he added.
The union represents nearly 5,000 members from about 200 locals across the region, according to Flynn, but has not received much attention from candidates campaigning in the early-voting state.
Trump, who spoke to gathered members and reporters before and after the endorsement was announced, stressed his support for police officers in his remarks.
"Police forces throughout the country have had a hard time. A lot of people killed," said Trump, his voice still hoarse with a bout of laryngitis.
He went on to call for the death penalty for any person who kills a cop.
"I said that one of the first things I'd do in terms of executive order if I win will be sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody killing policemen, police woman, police officer, anybody killing a police officer, death penalty is going to happen, OK," he recounted telling the executive board.
While there is currently a federal death penalty, states have their own laws on capital punishment and governors and legislatures have the authority to decide what those statutes look like independent of a presidential executive order. In states that have the death penalty, killing a police officer is often already considered an aggravating factor in deciding whether a defendant will be eligible for capital punishment.
Trump also expressed support for local police departments using military equipment, which the Obama administration has worked to curb following complaints about officers using riot gear and armored vehicles to confront protesters in Ferguson, Missouri.
"You know they're taking away the military equipment," said Trump.
"Every time I see a conflict, I see a van pull up, I see an armor-plated Humvee pull up. I see almost a tank in some cases pull up. We've got to let our police have the finest equipment and the finest training and if we don't," he said, "we're making a tremendous mistake as a country."
Trump also acknowledged the backlash Thursday to his proposed Muslim ban, but told those gathered that he'd taken far more heat for his comments about Mexicans criminals entering the country illegally.
"We've had a pretty interesting couple of days," said Trump. "We have people talking. I will tell you that. And we have them talking very positively. Because people are saying, you know, Trump is right."
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday found that, while a solid majority of Americans oppose Trump's proposal, Republicans are more receptive. The poll found that 42 percent of GOP respondents supported the idea, while 36 percent opposed it, according to NBC News.
Thursday's event, which was closed to the general public, attracted around 150 protesters, who gathered in front of the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel with signs denouncing Trump's plan.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.