Senate GOP chides Trump over McCain treatment
Senate Republicans are openly seething over the White House’s treatment of John McCain, casting a pall over the party ahead of a rare lunch with President Donald Trump the caucus is hosting on Tuesday.
The White House’s refusal to apologize for an aide joking about the Arizona senator’s failing health is threatening to undermine what should be a feel-good moment for the caucus.
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“Just out of common decency they should apologize. And the person who said it should apologize. It’s wrong,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
With a potential deal with North Korea in the works, the economy humming and Trump following through on his vow to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, Republicans were feeling more upbeat about the administration than they had in months. But the morbid joke by communications aide Kelly Sadler last week, delivered at a staff meeting and promptly leaked to the press, made them wonder when the administration is going to start treating McCain with more respect.
“Everything happens for a reason. And sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and made a bad decision,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “She ought to apologize publicly. If it were my administration, and it’s not, I would also apologize on behalf of the administration.”
Monday marked the fifth day that the White House declined to express regrets publicly to McCain and his family after Sadler joked that the Arizona senator’s opposition to CIA director nominee Gina Haspel “doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.” Sadler has spoken to the McCain family, but has not issued a public apology. Neither have White House press aides; on Monday, spokesman Raj Shah said the matter was being handled “internally.”
The feud, ostensibly between Sadler and the McCain family, actually reflects a larger shift in Republican politics: Even as the White House has been captured by a boorish politician whose nationalist base approves of him and his aides throwing elbows at even at the most revered figures in American life, many members of his own party do not.
“He’s a war hero and he should be treated as such. I would hope that they would treat him as he deserves to be treated,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “I hope that we have a discussion about it” in the lunch with Trump.
The gulf between Trump and some of his aides, and the tradition-bound members of the Senate, has never been more stark — or more awkward. Trump and his base consider McCain a moderate who has undermined their legislative priorities, and they aren’t reluctant to say it.
McCain famously cast the deciding vote against repealing Obamacare last summer and is now urging the Senate to reject Haspel, much to the annoyance of key White House aides and Trump, who frequently refers to McCain’s disloyalty in his stump speeches. The president has continued to grouse privately to friends and associates about the Arizona senator, whom he considers an unhelpful pest.
In that sense, Sadler, the junior West Wing aide whose disparaging remarks have now sparked days of controversy, was merely taking cues from her boss.
In the Senate GOP Conference, most Republicans are ideologically closer to the GOP for which McCain was standard bearer as the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, and are used to debating disagreements with decorum. They also generally adore McCain, who is beloved despite his cantankerous ways and frequent stands against this own party.
“I would have thought they would have bit the bullet by now and made a public statement,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
Shah’s answer on Monday suggested that there may never be a public apology. He recited Sadler’s outreach to the McCain family and said “she apologized for the comment.” And though they want Trump’s administration, or the president himself, to disavow the comments as McCain is treated for brain cancer, many Republicans don’t expect that is forthcoming.