The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lindsey O. Graham blasts White House aide’s McCain remark as ‘pretty disgusting thing to say’

A White House official dismissed John McCain’s brain cancer at a closed-door meeting May 10. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) blasted White House officials Saturday for refusing to condemn a vile remark made about the mortality of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with whom Graham spent several days last week as McCain battled an aggressive form of brain cancer.

Graham, who also has maintained good relations with President Trump, suggested that Trump might consider apologizing himself on behalf of the entire office after a press aide, Kelly Sadler, dismissed McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel by saying “he’s dying, anyway.”

“It’s [a] pretty disgusting thing to say, if it was a joke, it was a terrible joke,” Graham said Saturday in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” set to air Sunday morning. “I just wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that was inappropriate, that’s not who we are in the Trump administration.”

An initial White House statement, when The Hill broke the story Thursday afternoon, praised “Senator McCain’s service to our nation and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time.” By Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to confirm the comments were spoken and did not rebuke Sadler’s remark, even as The Washington Post and other media outlets confirmed the exchange.

White House official derides McCain over Haspel opposition: ‘He’s dying anyway’

Graham has been a close McCain confidant since the Arizonan’s 2000 presidential campaign, when Graham was still in the House. On Thursday, he regaled the congressional press corps with stories about his four-day visit with the McCains, including staying up watching movies with the former prisoner of war.

McCain’s opposition to Haspel is based on her work in the CIA overseeing enhanced interrogation techniques that included waterboarding, which is widely considered a form of torture but which George W. Bush administration officials defended as a legal method of obtaining information from terrorists. In his soon-to-be-released autobiography, “The Restless Wave,” McCain devotes an entire chapter to explaining his opposition to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogations, based in part on his own experience in Vietnam.

Sadler’s comment brought an outpouring of condemnation from many Republican and Democratic dignitaries, including former vice president Joe Biden and former secretary of state John F. Kerry.

McCain and Trump have had a bitter relationship since Trump’s first days campaigning for president, when he mocked McCain’s status as a war hero because he had been shot down by the Vietnamese. McCain spent most 0f 2017 criticizing Trump’s America First foreign policy as “half baked” and destructive to global alliances.

Graham is the rare senator who is close to both men. After being staunchly against Trump, competing against him in the 2016 presidential primary, Graham grew closer to the president last summer and has become a sometime golf partner who tries to steer him in his direction on policy issues.

“John McCain can be criticized for any political decision he’s ever made or any vote he’s ever cast but he’s an American hero. And I think most Americans would like to see the Trump administration do better in situations like this,” Graham said.

Asked by CBS’s Margaret Brennan if Trump should apologize, Graham left that open as a possibility. “I’ll leave that up to him, but if something happened like that in my office — somebody in my office said such a thing about somebody, I would apologize on behalf of the office,” he said.