After plenty of reporters connected the dots with McCain (R-Ariz.), CNN’s Daniel Dale cautioned against assuming that. He noted that Trump has occasionally suggested that his critics have paid a professional price — including in their post-Senate careers.
This is a valid point. Back in January, Trump suggested that former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was running into trouble after a retirement he admitted was due to his Trump criticisms making it hard to win renomination in Trump’s GOP. “So Jeff Flake is now selling real estate, or whatever he’s doing,” Trump said. “He’ll probably go to work for CNN. That’s my prediction.”
Trump also suggested at the time that former senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) forfeited a safe Senate seat, though he didn’t so directly refer to his post-Senate employment. “Bob Corker was going to be a senator for another 20 years,” Trump said. “And then, for some reason, he hit me because he thought it was going to be good publicity. It didn’t work out too well.”
Beyond Flake and Corker, about the only senators this comment could have referenced would be McCain and former senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Heller is another Senate Republican whom Trump has accused of being insufficiently supportive of his agenda and paying a price for it. Trump also told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the reason he didn’t nominate Heller for interior secretary was that Heller declined to say whether he had voted for him in 2016 — another possible allusion to his former critics finding employment tougher after leaving the Senate.
But also consider this: Heller and Flake were replaced by Democrats. Is Trump really happier to have those two votes going to Democrats, rather than staying in the hands of Republicans with consistent conservative records who occasionally criticized him?
At this point in his speech, Trump seemed to be off-script, and it’s possible he didn’t put a lot of thought into these remarks. But logically, it seems likely he would be happier that Corker and McCain are gone from the Senate, given they were replaced by other Republicans who are less likely to rock the boat.
It’s also important to note Trump’s track record here. Since McCain’s death, Trump has regularly said he wasn’t a fan of McCain’s, attacked a book he wrote (it “bombed”), claimed the McCain family didn’t thank him for his state funeral, suggested that those who tried to obscure the USS John S. McCain (named for McCain’s father) from view during his event had good intentions and said that there were “stains” on his record. All of this, of course, came after Trump suggested in 2016 that McCain wasn’t a war hero. Trump has been fixated on McCain more than any of these former senators, so it’s difficult to believe McCain wouldn’t cross his mind when he’s speaking in this context.
Trump also has a habit of using plausible deniability to his advantage. He often walks right up to the edge of saying something extremely offensive without directly saying it, and then allows his supporters to connect the dots. Then, when his critics connect those same dots, he claims victimhood.
It’s impossible to say with certainty that Trump’s comment was about McCain, but it’s hardly far-fetched. And it seems quite possible it’s the impression he intended to leave and the controversy he wanted.