President Trump on Wednesday escalated his unrelenting attacks on the late senator from Arizona and former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who even in death has remained one of Trump’s top targets for abuse as fellow Republicans have repeatedly begged him to stop.
“I gave him the kind of funeral he wanted, which as president I had to approve,” Trump said inaccurately, an apparent reference to allowing the use of military transport to carry McCain’s body to Washington. “I don’t care about this, I didn’t get a thank-you, that’s okay. We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”
He added, “I have to be honest, I never liked him much. Hasn’t been for me. I’ve really, probably, never will.”
The full-throated repudiation of a deceased and revered member of his party was remarkable even for a president constantly at war with his rivals, and it came amid an outpouring of statements in recent days praising McCain in the face of Trump’s attacks.
“It’s deplorable what he said,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in an interview with Atlanta-based Georgia Public Broadcasting earlier Wednesday, referring to previous Trump attacks on McCain. “It will be deplorable seven months from now, if he says it again, and I will continue to speak out. . . . We should never reduce the service that people give to this country, including the offering of their own life.”
Trump’s comments are part of a longtime pattern in which he lashes into those he sees as challenging him — whether prominent or obscure, alive or dead.
In recent days, the president has also attacked George Conway, the husband of senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway, calling him a “stone cold loser,” “a whack job” and a “husband from hell” after Conway raised questions about the president’s mental health on Twitter. Others who have drawn the president’s ire in recent days have included weekend Fox News hosts and “Saturday Night Live” writers and performers.
Some close to the president have attributed his frustrations to worrying over the looming report on Russian election interference from the special counsel’s office — which he mocked Wednesday on the South Lawn of the White House en route to Ohio — while others said he simply has fewer advisers to restrain him from airing his grievances.
Animosity between Trump, who received draft deferments from military service, and McCain stretches back decades and came to a head during the 2016 campaign when Trump declared that McCain was “not a war hero” because he had been captured after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam.
Aides say the new round of frustrations over McCain was fueled by a news report Trump saw recently about McCain’s role in handing over a copy of an intelligence dossier to the FBI after the 2016 election. Trump inaccurately blames the disputed document for kicking off the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the campaign to help Trump.
Trump has regularly railed about McCain in the nearly seven months since his death, complaining about the dossier and the senator’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. Exasperated advisers have encouraged him repeatedly to drop the issue, but his grudge against McCain is particularly visceral, according to current and former aides.
Some of McCain’s supporters said the criticism would amuse McCain, who would have appreciated that the president was still tormented by his legacy. Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime friend and co-author, said that at first he was angered by the president’s mischaracterizations.
“It’s reaching a point of boredom for all of us. McCain is getting some kind of amusement out of it that he’s still in the guy’s head somewhere,” Salter said. “It doesn’t help him, but he can’t control himself. He obviously resents John. He obviously craves the admiration that John received in life. He may excoriate the establishment and fake news and everything else, but he craves its approval.”
At Trump’s event in Lima, Fred Creech, a 61-year-old welder from Wapakoneta, Ohio, said he was a Trump supporter who appreciated the president’s visit but said he was not thrilled by the extended anti-McCain diatribe.
“I can understand what he was saying, but I don’t know that it was totally necessary to explain all that to every single person out here,” Creech said.
Mike Phillips, 58, of Lafayette, Ohio, who works as a forklift driver at the plant, said he was a Trump supporter who appreciated the president’s political incorrectness. “We’ve got a president up there right now that has backbone,” he said. “And we’re sorry if we hurt a few feelings, if that’s the way it is, but we’ve got to be strong again.”
But Phillips was not eager to wade into the McCain controversy: “I do not have a comment on his comment. I’m not going there.”
Republicans have privately urged Trump to be more decorous about their late colleague, but most have done little in response to the continued attacks, aside from veiled criticisms. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) posted a tweet before Trump’s Ohio speech that praised McCain but did not mention the president.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was close to McCain and remains close to Trump, said at an event in South Carolina on Monday that he had repeatedly counseled the president against attacking his late friend, to no avail.
“He’s an American hero, and nothing will ever change that in my eyes. I want to help this president, I want him to be successful,” he said. “ . . . I think the president’s comments about Senator McCain hurt him more than they hurt the legacy of Senator McCain.”
A number of Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday sharply criticized Trump’s attacks on McCain, including South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said Trump “faked a disability in order to avoid serving,” a reference to the president’s disputed medical deferment for bone spurs.
Beto O’Rourke, appearing at a campaign stop in Conway, N.H., pointed to McCain’s disavowal of racial attacks in the 2008 presidential race against Barack Obama.
“I think that kind of dignity and civility and mutual respect in our politics is missing right now,” O’Rourke said. “I hope that we go back to his example. Instead of focusing on the president’s comments I want to focus on Senator McCain and his example.”
The president is unlikely to change his posture toward McCain, aides say. He takes particular pride in the idea that GOP voters prefer him over McCain, and aides say he has bragged that Republicans might cringe but not punish him over the attacks.
On the day of McCain’s death, he scuttled issuing a statement drafted by White House aides honoring his life. He reluctantly lowered the U.S. flags over the White House briefly before they were raised — then under a fierce backlash, lowered them again.
The president also fumed about the wall-to-wall news coverage of McCain’s death and that he was not invited to the funeral at Washington National Cathedral, current and former administration officials said.
Trump said in Lima that he did not like McCain because he received a “fake and phony” dossier and handed it over to the FBI, “hoping to put me in jeopardy.” McCain had said he handed over the document after first learning about it on the sidelines of a security conference because he thought it was important for law enforcement to investigate.
The president said, without providing examples or evidence, that McCain “didn’t get the job done for our great vets at the VA and they knew it.”
And he attacked McCain’s status as a longtime defense hawk who advocated a robust U.S. presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. “We’re in a war in the Middle East that McCain pushed so hard,” Trump said.
After about five minutes of complaining about McCain, Trump seemed to realize he had flown to Ohio for another reason. Explaining his jeremiad, he said the news media had asked him about McCain — but only after he tweeted attacks on the late senator.
“Not my kind of guy, but some people like him and I think that’s great,” he said. “Now, let’s get back and get onto the subject of tanks and this economy.”