When Trump stood alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Helsinki five weeks before McCain’s death, the ailing senator issued a written statement calling it “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Like most of Trump’s feuds, this was one that he started. Shortly after launching his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump disparaged McCain’s military service during a question-and-answer session with the GOP pollster Frank Luntz. As a Navy pilot in Vietnam, McCain’s plane was shot down in 1967, and he was captured by the North Vietnamese. He spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, where he was repeatedly beaten and tortured.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump scoffed. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
The comments drew overwhelming condemnation from lawmakers and elder statesmen in both parties, but like all of Trump’s politically indecorous remarks during the campaign, they did not stop his candidacy.
McCain would later say that while he did not take personal offense at Trump’s jab, he was angered at his insult of the thousands of U.S. soldiers who have been captured by the enemy while fighting overseas. The president, he told “60 Minutes” last year, never apologized for the remark.
Like many Republicans, McCain withdrew his endorsement of Trump after the October 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” video in which the businessman joked about sexually assaulting women. And a year later, it appeared to many that McCain was referring to the president when he criticized wealthy men who secured draft deferments during Vietnam by claiming they had bone spurs—exactly the ailment that Trump bragged had allowed him to escape military service. “One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest-income level of America, and the highest-income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur,” McCain said in an interview with C-Span. “That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.” (He later said he did not consider the president “a draft-dodger.”
Yet it was not McCain’s words, but his vote, that mattered most—both substantively on policy, and personally to the president. His surprising, late-night opposition to the Senate health-care bill ended a months-long effort to roll back the Affordable Care Act. And though GOP Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska also went against the measure, it was McCain’s vote that Trump could not forgive. He criticized him repeatedly—at rallies, press conferences—on Twitter, sometimes by name and other times simply with a knowing reference to the Arizona senator that would draw boos from a Trump-friendly crowd.