Trump rejects plans for a White House statement praising Senator John McCain

US President Donald Trump (right) told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising Senator John McCain's life was not released.
US President Donald Trump (right) told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising Senator John McCain's life was not released.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - United States President Donald Trump declined to release a statement that praised the heroism and life of Senator John McCain, telling senior aides he preferred to issue a tweet instead.

He posted one last Saturday night (Aug 25) that did not include any kind words for the late Arizona Republican.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War prisoner of war plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a "hero", according to current and former White House aides, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.

The original statement was drafted before Mr McCain died last Saturday, and Ms Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the President, the aides said.

But Mr Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising Mr McCain's life was not released.

"My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!" Mr Trump posted last Saturday evening shortly after Mr McCain's death was announced.

Ms Sanders declined to comment on Sunday afternoon.

"It's atrocious," Mr Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Mr Trump's legal team and a long-time Republican strategist, said of Mr Trump's reaction to Mr McCain's death.

"At a time like this, you would expect more of an American President when you're talking about the passing of a true American hero."

The break with precedent of previous presidents - who have typically released effusive official statements for noteworthy Americans upon their death - underscored the bitter relationship between the two men, Mr Trump's continued anger toward Mr McCain and the substantive and stylistic differences between them, people close to both men said.

White House aides instead posted statements from officials other than the President praising Mr McCain.

By Sunday afternoon, Ms Sanders, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Defence Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser John Bolton, counsellor to the president Kellyanne Conway, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others had posted statements lauding the former 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush posted glowing eulogies as well.

Other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, also issued similar statements.

"John McCain was a true American hero. He devoted his entire life to his country. His voice will be missed. Our respectful thoughts go to his beloved ones," Mr Macron posted on Twitter.

As tributes poured in, the President, who had said Mr McCain was "not a war hero", spent much of Sunday at his golf course in Virginia and did not utter a word publicly.

He returned to the White House in the afternoon, where the flags were lowered to half-staff for the deceased senator.

 
 
 

His Twitter feed was silent on Sunday other than reprising screeds against the investigation into Russian election interference and boasting about a buoyant economy.

"Fantastic numbers on consumer spending released on Friday!" Mr Trump posted en route to the Virginia course on Sunday morning. "Stock Market hits all time high!"

Later on Sunday, he accused the news media of giving Mr Obama credit for his accomplishments, posting an excerpt of a weeks-old piece from the Washington Times.

Mr McCain had requested that Mr Bush and Mr Obama deliver eulogies at his funeral, while not inviting Mr Trump. White House aides said it is unclear whether Mr Trump will go to Capitol Hill, where Mr McCain is expected to lay in state later this week.

In abruptly seizing control of the Republican Party in 2016, Mr Trump frequently denigrated Mr McCain, who stood as an embodiment of the GOP for decades.

Mr Trump had repeatedly declined to say anything nice about Mr McCain, leaving him out of a speech earlier this month commemorating the signing of a defence spending Bill with the senator's name on it.

Current and former White House aides said Mr Trump continually said Mr McCain was "not a friend" and was out to undermine the administration's agenda, quarrelling with other aides who were more supportive.

He continued to believe that Mr McCain was not a war hero, officials said, mirroring his controversial 2015 comment in Iowa when he attacked the Arizona senator for being captured and living in torturous conditions in Vietnam for almost six years.

"I like people that weren't captured," Mr Trump said.

The President was particularly frustrated last year when Mr McCain strode to the floor of the Senate and put both thumbs down on a Bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, driving a stake through the administration's first big legislative priority.

He has also complained to allies about Mr McCain's role in handing over a copy of a disputed dossier detailing allegations against him to the FBI after the 2016 election.

Mr Trump told aides before Mr McCain's death that the senator should have stepped down from his seat as he battled cancer.

Mr Trump also told friends that he was betrayed by Mr McCain, who he felt he had supported politically.

"Initially, Donald liked McCain. Back in the 2008 election, he said to me that he thought the Republicans needed someone like McCain - something different," said Mr Chris Ruddy, a long-time Trump friend. "He said that he was a maverick who was doing different stuff."

But Mr McCain became one of the President's sharpest critics, attacking him on foreign and domestic policy and disagreeing with his rhetoric, including Mr Trump's sharp attacks on the news media and his fight in 2016 with the Gold Star family of a dead soldier.

In July, after Mr Trump held a friendly news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr McCain issued his sharpest rebuke yet.

"The damage inflicted by President Trump's naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake," Mr McCain said.

The Arizona senator died at a time he saw as dark in the country's history, said Mr John Weaver, a former aide and a long-time friend. Mr Weaver said Mr McCain kept some of his worst opinions about Mr Trump to himself.

Mr McCain's popularity among Republicans had dropped as Mr Trump took over the party. In a recent Fox News poll, 41 per cent of Republicans said they had a favourable opinion of Mr McCain, while 60 per cent of Democrats shared the view. Mr Trump's approval is close to 90 per cent among Republicans.

For many, the contrast between the two men - and Mr Trump's reaction to Mr McCain's death - led to emotional and nostalgic remembrances for the senator, a hearkening to a different time. Mr Weaver said there was a "clear juxtaposition" between the two.

Mr Mark Hertling, a former senior military commander who lauded Mr McCain on Twitter for visiting Mosul during heavy fighting in Afghanistan, said he was not surprised by Mr Trump's reaction to Mr McCain's death.

Nineteen months into his presidency, Mr Trump has yet to visit any war zones where American troops are fighting. "It was very shallow," Mr Hertling said of Mr Trump's response.

McCain allies said they did not expect an outpouring of praise from Mr Trump after their contentious past.

"It certainly doesn't bother me or the people I know close to John," Mr Weaver said. "I don't think it bothers John one bit. If we heard something today or tomorrow from Trump, we know it'd mean less than a degree from Trump University."