Written by Maggie Haberman, Annie Karni and Michael Tackett
It is an obsession he cannot seem to shake.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been dead for seven months, but President Donald Trump’s feud with him is very much alive, and in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, on Wednesday, he took it to a new level.
He said he gave McCain “the funeral he wanted, and I didn’t get ‘thank you,’ ” exaggerating the role he played in honoring the senator’s death four days before his 82nd birthday.
He blamed him for “a war in the Middle East that McCain pushed so hard.” He said that “McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets” and the Department of Veterans Affairs. And he was blunt in saying that his animosity toward McCain was not going to change.
“I have to be honest: I’ve never liked him much,” Trump said, about 10 minutes into a freewheeling speech that was ostensibly about the resurgence of manufacturing jobs. “Hasn’t been for me. I’ve really — probably never will.”
The long, antagonistic history between the president and McCain, in his youth a naval aviator and prisoner of war celebrated for his bravery and later known as a maverick in the Republican Party, dates to the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump, who never served in the military, said McCain was not a war hero, adding, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump was reacting to the senator’s accusation that he riled up “crazies” with inflammatory remarks about illegal immigration across the Mexican border. His attack on McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, horrified his own aides and led Republican leaders to denounce the outsider who was already disrupting their party. It also proved to be an early example of Trump’s ability to remain undamaged by any self-created controversy.
Now, months after McCain’s death in August, Trump suddenly cannot stop talking about his old adversary, outraging McCain’s supporters and creating another divide — if only temporary — between himself and congressional Republicans.
His attacks began over the weekend, when the president used his Twitter feed to berate McCain for his role in giving the FBI a dossier of unverified information about Trump’s connections to Russia that was compiled by a former British spy — a dossier the FBI already had. He brought up McCain’s vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act. He claimed that McCain was “last in his class” at the Naval Academy, when McCain actually graduated fifth from the bottom.
On Tuesday, seated in the Oval Office next to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Trump told reporters that he was “never a fan” of McCain, and never would be. And Wednesday, Trump reiterated all those reasons in a diatribe that was part of a week that Trump seems to have dedicated to airing personal feuds.
He has spent days criticizing George Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway, one his top advisers, who has been raising alarms about the president’s mental health and calling him unfit for office via his Twitter feed. On his way to Ohio, Trump called Conway a “whack job,” capping two days of back-and-forth with the spouse of one of his most loyal and longest-serving aides.
But his relentless fixation on McCain was more reminiscent of an election-year feud Trump escalated against a Gold Star father, Khizr Khan, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and, brandishing a pocket Constitution, challenged Trump for smearing the character of Muslims. Republicans once again denounced Trump when he continued to attack Khan and his wife, who Trump implied was forced against her will to stand silently by her husband’s side during the emotional speech.
The feud with McCain, however, has carried into his presidency, even after the man who was considered an elder statesman of the Senate learned he had brain cancer and eventually died.
Planning his funeral, McCain made it clear that the president would not be welcome, leaving Trump to fume when his two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, eulogized McCain in a service at Washington National Cathedral. The president’s response was to stall on issuing any proclamation of praise or ordering flags to be flown at half-staff to commemorate the senator’s death.
His posthumous attacks have been cheered at the president’s Make America Great rallies. But at the Army tank plant in Lima, where Trump said a third of the workforce is made up of veterans, the denunciations drew no cheers. And they once again resulted in rare criticism from Trump’s own party.
On Wednesday, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called out the president’s string of recent comments about McCain.
“It’s deplorable what he said,” Isakson said in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind” radio show, adding, “It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again, and I will continue to speak out.”
He joined Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who had criticized the president Tuesday. “I can’t understand why the President would, once again, disparage a man as exemplary as my friend John McCain: heroic, courageous, patriotic, honorable, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, empathetic, and driven by duty to family, country, and God,” Romney wrote on Twitter.
Other Republicans, like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, however, were more muted in responding to Trump’s latest attacks, choosing to emphasize their support for McCain rather than confront the president.
But at least one Democratic presidential candidate used the moment to demand change in the White House.
“This Vietnam vet was brought to tears when hearing the stories of the President going after John McCain this week, as well as the lack of focus on mental health for kids in this country,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., wrote on Twitter, with a picture of her embracing a veteran.
McCain’s family, meanwhile, responded in his stead.
“This is a new bizarre low,” McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, said on “The View” on Wednesday. “I will say attacking someone who isn’t here is a bizarre low. My dad’s not here, but I’m sure as hell here.”
She added: “I think if I had told my dad, ‘Seven months after you’re dead, you’re going to be dominating the news and all over Twitter,’ he would think it’s hilarious that our president was so jealous of him that he was dominating the news cycle in death as well.”
McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, for her part, shared on Twitter a hateful message she received after Trump’s most recent attacks, in which the sender wished that McCain’s daughter “chokes to death.”
Mark Salter, McCain’s closest political adviser and a harsh critic of the president, said all of Trump’s personal attacks against critics were of a piece.
“The problem isn’t Trump’s disrespect to John and his family — it’s Trump,” he said. “He’s unfit for the office, and most members of Congress know he is. I hope this latest evidence of that convinces more people that he can’t be ignored.”