McCain made his remarks in a Senate hallway to a small group of reporters, responding to a question about the gun-control debate that has flared on Capitol Hill since the Sunday-morning shooting that left 49 clubgoers and the gunman dead. Obama on Thursday traveled to Orlando with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to pay his respects to victims’ families.
McCain answered the question about the gun debate by citing Obama’s culpability for the attack through his foreign policy: “Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures,” McCain said.
ISIS and ISIL are alternate terms for the Islamic State.
When pressed by a reporter on the claim that Obama was “directly” responsible, McCain reiterated his point — that Obama should not have withdrawn combat troops from Iraq: “He pulled everybody out of Iraq, and I predicted at the time that ISIS would go unchecked, and there would be attacks on the United States of America,” he said. “It’s a matter of record, so he is directly responsible.”
In a statement released Thursday afternoon after the comments were publicized, McCain said he “misspoke.”
“I did not mean to imply that the President was personally responsible,” he said. “I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the President himself. As I have said, President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL. I and others have long warned that the failure of the President’s policy to deny ISIL safe haven would allow the terrorist organization to inspire, plan, direct or conduct attacks on the United States and Europe as they have done in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and now Orlando.”
While the gunman referenced the Islamic State multiple times on Sunday, investigators say they are still working to figure out precisely what motivated the gunman and determine how he spent the months leading up to the attack.
Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old shooter, pledged loyalty to the leader of the Islamic State during a 911 call made while the hostage standoff at the club was ongoing. According to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Mateen also posted on Facebook the day of the shooting pledging allegiance to the group’s and claiming that the shooting was “vengeance” for airstrikes.
Officials have said that they have not found any signs that Mateen was directly tied to any kind of network, and the FBI said this week that it remains unclear which extremist group he supported. While he referenced the Islamic State multiple times on Sunday, Mateen has also made comments in recent years claiming that he had ties to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, two opposing terrorist groups that have clashed repeatedly in Syria and that both predate the Obama administration. He has also referenced the brothers who carried out the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon.
Investigators are interviewing Mateen’s family, friends and any other associates and scouring his digital trail to develop “the most complete picture of what the shooter did and why he did it,” Ronald Hopper, an FBI assistant special agent in charge, said during a briefing Wednesday.
McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, is seeking a sixth term in the Senate this year and faces a competitive Republican primary in August.
The likely Democratic nominee in the race, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, issued a statement Thursday saying McCain “cross[ed] a dangerous line in comments that undermine our Commander in Chief on national security issues — at the very moment the president was in Orlando to comfort victims’ families.”
“It’s difficult to imagine the old John McCain being this reckless with something so serious,” the statement said. “John McCain has changed after 33 years in Washington.”
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), condemned McCain’s remark, calling it “just the latest proof that Senate Republicans are puppets of Donald Trump” and that
“there is no daylight between Senate Republicans and Donald Trump.”
The scene in Orlando after a gunman opened fire at a nightclub
Mark Berman contributed to this report.