“I’m not going to get in the middle of that discussion,” said Sen.
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 McCain’s failing health is threatening to undermine what should be a feel-good moment for the caucus.
“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 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 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 GOP Senate 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 discussing 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.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance and obviously what was said was very wrong and inappropriate. And it would have been a lot easier if they had just nipped it right way and issued a public apology,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. “But now it’s drug on for five days. And I think it’s time for everyone to move on.”
As Sandler’s remarks escalated into a full-blown distraction for the White House over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was visiting with McCain in Arizona, he said Monday. McConnell called him a “true American hero” and said the Arizona senator was regarded as the “shadow secretary of state” during Obama’s presidency, an opinion very much at odds with the Trump White House’s view.
“I didn’t want to miss the opportunity…to tell him how much His friendship meant to me,” McConnell said. “I was confident I was speaking for everyone in the Senate and conveying our deepest respect to him.”
McCain’s allies point out how he defended Barack Obama in 2008 when he was attacked as an “Arab.” The contrast with Trump’s silence now is jarring, they say.
“This issue, such as it is, puts into very stark relief a fundamentally important contest between two completely divergent set of values: John McCain’s life represents one set of values, Donald Trump and his corrupt presidency represents a different set of values,” said Steve Schmidt, a former top McCain strategist and confidant.
Schmidt said he doubted Senate Republicans would confront Trump directly on Tuesday, saying that “though there may be anger in the room, the modern condition of the Republican party is such that it will be an anger that dare not speak its name out loud for risk of offering the leader.”
Indeed, not all Republicans are willing to thrust themselves into a conflict between an ailing senator and a president of his own party.
“I’m not going to get in the middle of that discussion,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), for whom McCain campaigned in his 2014 election.
The feud between Trump and McCain has been legacy-defining for both men, burnishing the president’s reputation as a man who wasn’t beholden to the GOP of old and the latter as a maverick willing to defy his party. Trump, weeks after launching his campaign for president, mocked McCain’s capture in Vietnam. McCain refused to endorse Trump after the Access Hollywood tape emerged in October 2016, then went on to win reelection.
But now, as McCain discusses his mortality amid cancer treatment in Arizona, Republicans wish the White House would ease its posture.
“It would be a good thing to just set the record straight,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). "That comment was uncalled for."
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