(CNN)In his first response directly addressing Donald Trump's comments on his war record, Sen. John McCain said Monday that the real estate mogul should not apologize to him, but should instead apologize to the veterans captured in war and their families.
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John McCain: Donald Trump owes POW families an apology
When asked Monday if he wanted an apology from Trump, McCain, whose supporters have been blasting Trump all weekend, said he doesn't need one.
"I don't think so, but I think he may owe an apology to the families of those who have sacrificed in conflict and those who have undergone the prison experience in serving our country," McCain told MSNBC's "Morning Joe".
"I'm in the arena, as (Teddy Roosevelt) used to say," McCain said, skipping an opportunity to knock Trump further as his allies and other presidential contenders from Trump's own party have been outspoken in denouncing his remarks.
Trump disparaged McCain and other prisoners of war Saturday, in a rapid back-and-forth with Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
Trump opened by criticizing McCain for calling attendees at his Phoenix rally "crazies" and defended his tweet calling McCain a "dummy".
He then joked that he didn't like McCain because he lost to President Barack Obama in 2008. To which Luntz quickly said "He's a war hero." Trump first said "He's not a war hero", Luntz said "He's a war hero" and then Trump corrected himself "He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, ok? I hate to tell you."
Matt Lauer, host of NBC's "Today Show" pressed Trump on his comments Monday morning, during a terse on-air exchange. Lauer asked Trump to apologize, but Trump insisted he had nothing to apologize for.
"I said very clearly he is a war hero, I have absolutely no problem with that," Trump said.
McCain spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton" where he was tortured repeatedly. Trump, meanwhile, received four student deferments and one medical deferment to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.
Asked if he was angry that someone who had avoided that draft was knocking him, McCain said he preferred to move past the issue.
"I put that all behind me," McCain said. "I put all that behind me. For me to get back in anger at anyone is non-productive. Our country was divided in an almost unprecedented fashion during the Vietnam War. And when I came home I was shocked. So I have worked ever since to try and heal those wounds."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham -- who McCain has backed for the GOP presidential nomination -- rushed to the Arizona senator's defense when they appeared together at an event Monday afternoon.
"Some people say that he's not an American hero. I say he and everybody like him is an American hero," Graham said.
Former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent who was the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, also defended McCain at the event.
"Trump said he is not a war hero," Lieberman said. "Well, why was he captured? Because he was on a dangerous mission in service of the U.S., the kind of mission the men and women have carried out since the beginning of America and why we enjoy the freedom we do today."
Since his comments, Trump has struggled to find his footing, accusing the media of distorting his comments and digging in even further with an op-ed in USA Today published Sunday.
"The reality is that John McCain the politician has made America less safe, sent our brave soldiers into wrong-headed foreign adventures, covered up for President Obama with the VA scandal and has spent most of his time in the Senate pushing amnesty. He would rather protect the Iraqi border than Arizona's," Trump wrote, in his latest knock on the Republican Party's 2008 nominee.
Trump's Republican opponents, meanwhile, have pounced. A long list of contenders, from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, have called Trump's comments "offensive" and, in some cases, even request he leave the race.