President Donald Trump sent his condolences on Twitter on Saturday night to the family of Sen. John McCain, who died of complications from brain cancer earlier in the day.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain,” Trump wrote in the tweet circulated by White House press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, before the president lowered the flags to half-staff to honor McCain. “Our hearts and prayers are with you!”
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But in the hours after McCain’s family announced Friday that he was discontinuing medical treatment – and as tributes streamed in from across the political spectrum – Trump couldn’t bring himself to execute one of the simplest responsibilities expected of his office: offering consideration for a prominent public servant.
In that time, Trump provided neither words nor gestures, and the White House struggled with how to explain the awkwardness around not demonstrating reverence for the six-term senator, former Republican presidential nominee and decorated war hero.
The silence pointed to the strained relationship between the GOP stalwart and the man who has taken over the party. Trump administration officials had said they were taking their cues from the president, who they didn’t expect to bring up McCain after Friday’s announcement about his treatment, at least not until his death, as he ultimately did.
Trump, during a Friday speech to Republican activists in Ohio, had brought up Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – but not McCain. Vice President Mike Pence made no mention of McCain’s health in a speech earlier in the day in Washington.
Trump earlier this month in Fort Drum, N.Y., referred to a $716 billion defense policy bill simply as the National Defense Authorization Act. Its formal name is the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. One White House aide expressed relief in the senator’s final hours that the president refrained from saying anything disrespectful.
In the more than one year since McCain was diagnosed with the aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, Trump was unrelenting in his disparagement of the Republican senator, repeatedly reminding his followers that it was McCain who scuttled his campaign promise to gut Obamacare.
McCain, with his thumb turned downward, had dramatically cast a decisive vote to torpedo the bill after speaking directly with Trump, and after telling assembled reporters curious about what he was going to do to “Wait for the show!”
At campaign rallies and speeches, Trump has often left McCain’s name unsaid, relying instead on the signature downward thumb, and asking audiences if they remembered – or rather, how they could ever forget – the senator’s act of defiance.
McCain, who helped plan his own funeral, reportedly told several people that he did not want the president to attend. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were asked to give eulogies for McCain, The New York Times reported. Pence was to attend based on initial plans. The White House did not return messages late Saturday about its plans for the ceremony.
Amid Trump’s refusal to let the healthcare vote go, bad blood between the White House and the senator’s family was made worse when Kelly Sadler, then a communications aide in the Trump administration, mocked McCain’s brain cancer and rendered him irrelevant in the confirmation of Gina Haspel to CIA director, while in a closed-door meeting with colleagues in May, flippantly offering that “he’s dying anyway.”
Sanders did not apologize when prompted by reporters, and Sadler left her job in June.
Trump’s own criticism of McCain’s decision not to go along with the healthcare law repeal followed deep dismissiveness of the senator’s military career and record.
In 2015, while still a candidate for president, Trump said that McCain was a war hero “because he was captured” during the Vietnam War. It was an echo of Trump’s remarks from a 2000 interview after a back and forth with Dan Rather: “Does being captured make you a hero?” Trump asked at the time.
McCain, a Navy pilot, spent roughly five-and-half years in a North Vietnamese prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Between 1964 and 1968, Trump received four student deferments from military service, and five over his lifetime, including for bone spurs.
“He’s not a war hero,” said Trump, speaking at the campaign event in Iowa. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Given the opportunity to clarify his remarks, Trump told reporters after the program that he considers prisoners of war to be heroes. But he also continued to disparage McCain, arguing the Arizona senator has “done very little for the veterans. I’m very disappointed in John McCain,” Trump added.
During the campaign, McCain belittled the businessman’s tactics over a rally in Phoenix, Ariz., contending he “fired up the crazies.” And McCain ultimately withdrew his support for Trump after release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, where the president could be heard making lewd comments about women.
“The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!” Trump tweeted in response.
Later, without naming Trump, McCain again targeted his politics when accepting the Freedom Medal at the National Constitutional Center last October, decrying “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”
McCain would resurface with more critiques, as he did following Trump’s disastrous news conference last month with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
McCain called the Helsinki appearance “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a statement. “But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.
The presence of “competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful,” McCain concluded. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”