Senate Republicans are stepping up their defense of John McCain. And Donald Trump is ignoring them entirely.
In just his latest bid to tarnish McCain’s legacy and reshape the GOP in his own image, the president offered a new set of attacks on the dead Arizona senator even after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) blasted Trump for “deplorable“ behavior on Wednesday and other Republicans issued statements defending their former colleague.
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But Trump made clear at an appearance in Lima, Ohio, that he’s simply not going to adjust his public views of McCain just because it makes his own party uncomfortable.
Trump said on Wednesday of McCain that he “never liked him much … probably never will” and dinged him again for passing the Steele dossier, a mostly unverified report focusing on the president’s alleged ties to Russia, to the FBI. Trump said McCain’s vote against Obamacare repeal ended up “badly hurting our nation.” He also said McCain, who worked on expanding veterans’ health options with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), “didn’t get the job done for our great vets in the V.A., and they knew it.”
The president even chastised the McCain family for not thanking him for the Arizona senator’s funeral.
“I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which, as president, I had to approve. I don’t care about this. I didn’t get a thank you. That is OK. I was not a fan of John McCain,” Trump said. “I don’t think I have to answer that question but the press keeps [asking], ‘What do you think of McCain?’ Not my kind of guy but some people like him. And I think that’s great.”
The remarks underscored the little regard Trump has for GOP attempts to shut down his McCain attacks, which have been going on since the weekend. Isakson on Wednesday mounted the most forceful defense yet within the Senate GOP of McCain, who died last summer after serving in the Senate for decades and has continually drawn the ire of the president in the months since his death.
Isakson told The Bulwark, a conservative website, that the president’s targeting of McCain “drives me crazy” and that “the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better, I don’t care if he’s president of United States.” Then Isakson took to the airwaves in Georgia to declare that Trump’s comments demonstrated a “lack of respect” for McCain and other veterans.
“It’s deplorable what he said. It will be be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again,” Isakson said on Atlanta’s NPR affiliate, referencing the “deplorable” phrase that Trump has embraced for some of his supporters.
About an hour later, Trump took the stage in Lima to deliver his latest diatribe against the former Arizona senator. An Isakson spokeswoman said the senator’s remarks apply to the president’s latest criticisms of McCain, as well.
Isakson added that he hopes his colleagues begin to join him in speaking out: “I hope other members will say what they think when it’s appropriate.”
Yet the GOP response to Trump’s attacks on McCain has been slow and awkward.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of McCain’s closest allies, initially tweeted over the weekend a defense of McCain without mentioning Trump. On Monday, he called Trump’s rhetoric a “huge mistake.” On Wednesday he went even farther: “The president’s comments about Senator McCain hurt him more than they hurt the legacy of Senator McCain.”
“I’ve gotten to know the president, we have a good working relationship. I like him. I don’t like it when he says things about my friend John McCain,” Graham said in Seneca, S.C.
But Graham and Isakson’s comments stick out amid a caucus clearly caught between the 2008 GOP nominee and Trump.
Before Trump’s latest speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted on Wednesday that it “was a blessing to serve alongside a rare patriot and genuine American hero in the Senate,” but did not mention Trump. Ditto Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who holds McCain’s seat and who simply told everyone to leave the McCain family alone.
“John McCain is an American hero and I am thankful for his life of service and legacy to our country and Arizona. Everyone should give him and his family the respect, admiration, and peace they deserve,” she tweeted.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he “can’t understand why the president would, once again, disparage a man as exemplary as my friend John McCain.”
Many other Senate Republicans said nothing at all.
The Senate is on recess this week, with many GOP senators scattered across the country and some on international trips. Still, the response to Trump has been unusual as Democrats have more forcefully defended McCain, who voted with them to stop Obamacare repeal and enact immigration reform but who railed against President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and often frustrated Democratic leaders.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has called Trump’s attacks on McCain “repulsive” and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called it “despicable.” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), however, was singled out by the Arizona Republic for being slow to defend McCain.
“Arizonans know how I feel about John McCain. Arizonans also know how I feel about responding to President Trump’s statements and tweets. John McCain was my hero,” Sinema said on Wednesday afternoon.
In defending McCain, Isakson sought to raise concerns about the message that Trump is sending by targeting the Vietnam War veteran who was imprisoned and tortured overseas. Trump also has mocked McCain‘s military service and memorably said he “likes people who weren‘t captured” at war, a reference to McCain’s five-plus years as a POW.
“When the president is saying that that he doesn’t respect John McCain and he’s never going to respect John McCain and all these kids are out there listening to the president of the United States talk that way about the most decorated senator in history who is dead,” Isakson told the Bulwark. “It just sets the worst tone possible.”
Isakson may have more political freedom to speak out than some of his colleagues: The Georgia senator backed Trump’s national emergency on the border last week as nearly a quarter of Senate Republicans, including Romney, voted against it. Those votes have infuriated some Republicans back in senators’ home states: The Kansas City Star reported that Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was uninvited from a party event this spring over his vote.
Katie Galioto contributed to this report.