More Republicans are defending the late John McCain against President Donald Trump’s attacks. But it’s not clear that Trump, firmly in charge of the Republican Party, will let up.
A few GOP senators spoke out this week against a new round of Trump’s complaints about the Arizona senator, who died in August of brain cancer . One Republican called the president’s ongoing commentary “deplorable.” Others, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pointedly used the word “hero” to describe McCain, who was held captive in Vietnam for more than five years.
Trump has stuck to his suggestion that McCain was not a hero because he was captured. And he can’t seem to forget McCain’s decisive thumbs-down that sank the GOP effort to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Trump responded to the Republican criticism Wednesday in defiant fashion, serving up another anti-McCain tirade during an official appearance in Lima, Ohio.
“I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” Trump told a crowd at the event, which at times had the feel of a campaign rally. “I didn’t get (a) thank you but that’s OK.”
There wasn’t much reaction from the crowd to Trump’s references to McCain’s funeral . The president wrapped up the remarks after five minutes with an acknowledgement that his opinion of the late senator isn’t shared by all Republicans. “Some people like him, and I think that’s great.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who attended the Trump event, told The Columbus Dispatch afterward: “John McCain was a war hero.”
In fact, McCain’s family made clear that Trump was not welcome during the weeklong, cross-country ceremonies that the senator had planned himself. Instead, McCain invited former Presidents George W. Bush, who defeated McCain during the 2000 GOP nomination fight, and Barack Obama, who defeated him in 2008, to deliver eulogies on the value of pursuing goals greater than oneself. Trump signed off on the military transport of McCain’s body, went golfing and was uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter during the Washington events.
Trump’s publicly nursed grudge against McCain has not appeared to alienate core supporters, some of whom had soured on the senator by the time of his death. Aware of this, GOP lawmakers until now have stayed subdued or silent though Trump sometimes infuriated them with his comments on their late colleague.
McCain’s allies suggested it was time for that to change.
“I hope (Trump’s) indecency to John’s memory and to the McCain family will convince more officeholders that they can’t ignore the damage Trump is doing to politics and to the country’s well-being or remain silent despite their concerns,” said Mark Salter, McCain’s biographer. “They must speak up.”
Trump has said for years that he doesn’t think McCain is a hero because the senator was captured in Vietnam. McCain was tortured and held prisoner for more than five years.
The president has never served in the military and obtained a series of deferments to avoid going to Vietnam, including one attained with a physician’s letter stating that he suffered from bone spurs in his feet.
After the health care vote in 2017, Trump was furious, and it showed in the days after McCain’s Aug. 25 death. The administration lowered the American flag over the White House to half-staff when McCain died on a Saturday, but then raised it by Monday. After public outcry, the White House flags were again lowered.
This week, Trump unloaded a new series of anti-McCain tweets. He also said he was never “a fan” of McCain and never would be.
His relentless new targeting of the deceased senator seemed to cross a boundary for several Republicans.
McConnell called McCain “a rare patriot and genuine American hero in the Senate.” McConnell tweeted, “His memory continues to remind me every day that our nation is sustained by the sacrifices of heroes.”
The Kentucky Republican, who is up for re-election next year, never mentioned Trump, but others weren’t so shy.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said not only the McCain family but the nation “deserves better” than Trump’s disparagement.
“I don’t care if he’s president of the United States, owns all the real estate in New York, or is building the greatest immigration system in the world,” Isakson told The Bulwark, a conservative news and opinion website. Later, Isakson called Trump’s remarks “deplorable.”
“It will (be) deplorable seven months from now if he says it again,” Isakson continued in remarks on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind” radio show, “and I will continue to speak out.”
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee whom Trump briefly considered nominating as secretary of state, tweeted praise for McCain on Tuesday — and criticism of Trump.
“I can’t understand why the President would, once again, disparage a man as exemplary as my friend John McCain: heroic, courageous, patriotic, honorable, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, empathetic, and driven by duty to family, country, and God,” Romney wrote.
Pushback also came from Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican Air Force veteran appointed to McCain’s seat from Arizona.
“John McCain is an American hero and I am thankful for his life of service and legacy to our country and Arizona,” she tweeted Wednesday. “Everyone should give him and his family the respect, admiration, and peace they deserve.”
That McSally declined to criticize Trump directly reflected the broader wariness among Republicans to cross a president famous for mobilizing his followers against GOP lawmakers he deems disloyal. But this week, Trump seemed to inspire a new determination among some to draw a line, however delicately.