The thing that we all knew would probably happen when Sen. John McCain died is now happening. And it’s pretty emblematic that President Trump’s unceasing grudge against McCain still won’t cease, even in death.
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey reported Sunday night that Trump’s response to McCain’s death this weekend was a muted one, despite White House staff preparing and reviewing a statement, which was never released, that lauded McCain as a war hero:
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero,” according to current and former White House aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The original statement was drafted before McCain died Saturday, and Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the president, the aides said.
But Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising McCain’s life was not released.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Trump posted Saturday evening shortly after McCain’s death was announced.
Meanwhile, there is a situation brewing involving flags, with the White House returning its flag to full-staff shortly after midnight Monday. That came in the absence of a declaration from Trump, which is usually made upon deaths of statesmen like McCain.
Meanwhile, flags at the U.S. Capitol and even the Washington Monument, just blocks from the White House, remained at half-staff Monday morning.
UPDATE: The White House’s flag is back at half-staff, after some including the American Legion had complained.
Trump, it seems, has decided he’s not going to give an inch and is going to do what he can to temper the procession of tributes to McCain. What’s perhaps most notable is how uncomfortable that is making his own staff. As Dawsey notes, many of them have released their own statements praising McCain. And the fact that this episode leaked shouldn’t be discounted.
Those staffers probably knew that the statement they had crafted for Trump would be a hard sell for a president whose biggest of several early controversies as a White House candidate was pointedly disagreeing with the premise that McCain was a “war hero.” They also had to know the president would resist it, given that he has spent months badmouthing McCain at campaign rallies even as it was known that the senator was losing his battle with brain cancer. Was that guy really going to pull a 180 once McCain died?
That they even prepared the statement suggested that they were merely going through the motions. And the leaks suggest that the staffers weren’t terribly happy with how Trump was handling the matter — which is the usual genesis of such leaks.
Anybody who is surprised hasn’t been paying attention. Trump is nothing if not proud, and he has regularly shown little to no interest in apologizing. For Trump, signing off on a statement lauding McCain as a “war hero” would be tantamount to admitting he was wrong.
Trump has also made a brand of being politically incorrect and flouting social conventions — even ones involving very serious matters. Trump is sending a signal to his political enemies that his grudges simply don’t end, even after those enemies are no longer alive to defend themselves. That should make Republicans who are already severely reluctant to criticize Trump even less likely to do so, and as long as Trump’s base doesn’t punish him for perceived insensitivity, he has no reason to change his behavior.
The only real question from here on is whether this has any impact on McCain’s remembrance and legacy. For the moment, Trump has helped turn a GOP base that was already somewhat skeptical of McCain against him. A recent Fox News poll showed that 41 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of their 2008 presidential nominee. That’s pretty consistent with polling throughout Trump’s presidency, which has shown that more Republicans dislike McCain than like him. While that has been offset by Democrats who now approve of McCain for his Trump criticisms and statesmanship, it still means that about 20 percent of the country views McCain as something of a traitor to his party.
Were Trump to suddenly laud McCain, perhaps that opposition would soften. And maybe it eventually will anyway, given that politicians tend to be viewed more positively the longer they fade from public view.
But for now, Trump is giving his supporters license to view the beatification of John McCain with skepticism or even derision. And for about half of Republicans, that could just cement their negative view of his legacy — and his heroism, or lack thereof.