Washington • Advisers to President Donald Trump paid tribute Sunday to the long service of Sen. John McCain but stopped short of apologizing to him for a cruel remark by a White House communications aide about the Arizona Republican’s battle with brain cancer.
In a prepared statement, and in some public appearances, Trump advisers praised McCain’s service as a senator and naval aviator held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But they declined to comment on the remarks of Kelly Sadler, who told other communications aides at a closed-door staff meeting that McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel as CIA director did not matter because “he’s dying anyway.”
In an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” national security adviser John Bolton said he remained grateful for McCain’s past support, particularly during Bolton’s 2005 confirmation battle to be ambassador to the United Nations, a post for which Senate Democrats blocked him before President George W. Bush gave him an interim appointment.
McCain worked with other senators to try to win enough votes for Bolton to overcome a filibuster, at a time when Bolton’s political standing was not strong because of the unpopular direction of the Iraq War. He was a fierce advocate of the war.
“He did it because he thought I was being treated unfairly. I’ll never forget it, I’ll be grateful forever, and I wish John McCain and his family nothing but the best,” Bolton said on CNN.
Pressed by the network’s Jake Tapper on whether he would apologize for Sadler’s remark, Bolton demurred. “I’ve said what I’m going to say,” he said.
Later Sunday, Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, told ABC News that Sadler had called her to apologize but had still not acquiesced to the younger McCain’s request for a public apology.
“I asked her to publicly apologize and she said she would. I have not spoken to her since and I assume that it will never come,” Meghan McCain told ABC.
The story of Sadler’s remarks broke Thursday afternoon in The Hill newspaper, prompting a White House statement that praised “Senator McCain’s service to our nation, and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time.”
By Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to confirm the comments were spoken and did not rebuke Sadler’s remark, even as The Washington Post and other media outlets confirmed the exchange.
That stance has angered allies of McCain, both Republicans and Democrats, who view the senator as a war hero.
“It’s (a) pretty disgusting thing to say, if it was a joke, it was a terrible joke,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “I just wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that was inappropriate, that’s not who we are in the Trump administration.”
Graham, the rare senator who has maintained good relations with McCain and Trump, suggested that the president might consider apologizing himself on behalf of the entire White House.
McCain has been home in Arizona since mid-December battling an aggressive form of brain cancer. Sadler’s comment came after McCain’s announcement on Wednesday that, if he were present in the Senate for Haspel’s confirmation vote later this month, he would oppose her because of her role in helping the “enhanced interrogations” of terrorism suspects held at secret CIA black sites in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A prisoner of war for 5½ years in Vietnam, McCain endured torture and has long opposed U.S. operatives engaging in torture techniques, which he believes go against American values and are ineffective at obtaining accurate information.
McCain is not expected to be on hand for the vote, and Haspel appears to have enough votes to win confirmation after Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly’s announcement Saturday that he would be the second Democrat to back Haspel.
McCain and Trump have had a bitter relationship since Trump’s first days campaigning for president, when he mocked McCain’s status as a war hero because he had been shot down by the Vietnamese. McCain spent most of 2017 criticizing Trump’s America First foreign policy as “half baked” and destructive to global alliances.
After being staunchly against Trump, competing against him in the 2016 presidential primary, Graham grew closer to the president last summer and has become a sometime golf partner who tries to steer him in his direction on policy issues.
“John McCain can be criticized for any political decision he’s ever made or any vote he’s ever cast but he’s an American hero. And I think most Americans would like to see the Trump administration do better in situations like this,” Graham said.
His CBS interview aired from Jerusalem, where Graham is leading a Senate delegation attending the Monday opening of the U.S. embassy there, a controversial move by Trump.
Other prominent Republicans have pushed White House officials for a more forceful support of McCain.
“Those who mock such greatness only humiliate themselves and their silent accomplices,” Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a Senate candidate, tweeted Saturday.
Tapper, after his show aired, reported that Sadler called Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, to apologize, and she told Meghan McCain that she would publicly apologize. As of Sunday afternoon, neither Sadler nor any White House official had publicly apologized.