The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trump White House crossed a new threshold for political debasement this week

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

The White House probably thinks it cannot punish Kelly Sadler for her awful comment about John McCain because President Trump has also said nasty things about McCain. It may worry that showing her the door would set a troubling precedent for a president who may one day cross a very similar line.

Welcome to the ongoing degradation of our political discourse. Destination: No end in sight.

One mainstay of the Trump era is that reporters are constantly wary of overselling the salience of the political moment. We have seen Trump cross so many established lines of acceptable political behavior and rhetoric, and the outrage cycle can feel futile and even perfunctory. Whether it is Trump's goal to bulldoze our political norms or not, it is happening with an almost unflinching steadiness.

It is worth recording just where we are when key thresholds are crossed. What happened this week is worse than most anything we have seen — worse even, I would argue, than Trump questioning McCain's war hero status. What's more, the White House is trying to ignore it, which means the bulldozer is pressing forward.

Sadler reportedly said of McCain's opposition to Gina Haspel's nomination to be CIA director, “It doesn't matter; he's dying anyway.” The White House's response Friday was not to distance itself from the comment about the Arizona senator stricken with brain cancer, but to no-comment. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Sadler is still employed but declined to go any further. “I’m not going to validate a leak one way or another out of an internal staff meeting,” she said.

The comment, as it happens, was first reported Thursday just hours after a Fox Business Network pundit suggested McCain had given up key information while being tortured as a prisoner of war — a claim for which the network soon apologized. But while Trump's favorite cable news company was quick to atone for merely airing someone else's view that crossed a line, the White House is apparently not going to take any public action for a staffer talking blithely about the death of an American war hero. Its policy of not confirming leaks has been deemed more important. If there were anything that might warrant an exception, you would think this might qualify, but apparently no waivers will be granted for extenuating circumstances.

There is apparently a sense that Sadler made the comment jokingly — perhaps it was crass rather than plainly awful. That may be the more charitable explanation, but it does not do much to mitigate the awfulness of the comment. She would still be having a laugh at the expense of the seriously ill senator. Whoever heard it clearly thought it was bad enough to leak it to journalists and air it publicly.

Mostly, though, this all shows how unlikely the trend is to arrest itself anytime soon. Either because the White House is afraid of setting a standard Trump cannot meet or because Trump is demanding it hold the line against the media's outrage cycle, it is serving notice there are more important things than Sadler's public accountability: things like confidentiality and politics.

The White House's position on this kind of situation has always come down to not giving an inch. The upshot of that approach is an environment in which employees feel okay joking about death — and in which another comment will surely readjust the bounds of our rhetoric even more to the extreme.