On July 18, 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump said this about John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
On March 19, 2019, President Donald Trump offered this assessment of the late war hero and senator: “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be.”
Those two comments – almost four years apart and more than six months after McCain’s death – provide telling bookends to understand just how much Trump has changed Republican politics (and politics generally), and not for the better.
When Trump initially attacked McCain as something less than a war hero in 2015, it was covered as the end of a campaign that never really got started. Trump has been in the race for all of a month. He was still an asterisk in most polling. And everyone who knew anything assumed that attacking McCain’s five years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam – a time that left the Arizona Republican with lifelong wounds – was a death sentence of Trump’s political ambitions.
After all, while plenty of Republicans didn’t agree with McCain’s much-touted renegade nature – and his willingness to buck party leadership – no one ever questioned the man’s service to the country (in the military and in elected office). And doing so was seen as the easiest way to destroy your political future.
Except it didn’t destroy Trump. For all the hand-wringing and predictions of doom for his campaign, he just kept right on going – first to the Republican presidential nomination and then to the White House. For many of his supporters, Trump’s broadsides against McCain were music to their ears – finally someone was standing up to the political establishment in Washington! Trump wasn’t afraid of slaughtering a sacred cow – or all the sacred cows! He didn’t care! And they loved it.
Which brings me to Tuesday and Trump’s comments about McCain, who died in August 2018 after a battle with brain cancer. Here’s all of what Trump said:
“I’m very unhappy that he didn’t repeal and replace Obamacare, as you know. He campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare for years and then he got to a vote and he said thumbs down. And our country would’ve saved a trillion dollars and we would’ve had great healthcare. So he campaigned, he told us hours before that he was going to repeal and replace, and then for some reason, I think I understand the reason, he ended up going thumbs up, and frankly, had we even known that, I think we would’ve gotten the vote cause we could’ve gotten somebody else. So I think that’s disgraceful, plus there are other things.”
Those comments come after a weekend in which Trump repeatedly attacked McCain, who, in case you forgot, is deceased, for graduating “last in his class” from the Naval Academy and for allegedly sending the so-called Steele dossier to the media. (Trump offered zero proof that McCain had leaked the dossier, put together by a former British intelligence agent, to the press.)
So. Let’s take a step back here and think of what happened here in Washington on Tuesday. Sitting next to the leader of a foreign country, the President of the United States went after a former Republican senator (and former GOP presidential nominee) who not only served in the Vietnam War but spent years of his life being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp. And this is a President who received several deferments during Vietnam, including for bone spurs. In an interview with The New York Times in 2016, Trump called the condition “temporary” and “minor.”
Here’s what I know: These latest comments will cause zero erosion in Trump’s support among his hardcore backers. They will love the wringing of hands and woe-is-me reaction by who they believe to be elites. “He’s freaking them all out! They don’t know what to do with him!”
Here’s what I also know: There are certain things that are right and certain things that are wrong – whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or somewhere in between. And attacking a dead man who spent five years as a prisoner of war and another three decades serving the country in elected office, is simply wrong. That’s true if Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce or whoever the next president will be did it. (None of them would have said what Trump did about a man with as decorated a past as McCain but the point still holds.
Trump proudly embraces his smashing of political idols. Desecrating the old ways of doing things – and doing so gleefully – he believes is at the root of his political people. It says, he thinks, that he won’t let the rules that past crappy politicians have lived by govern him.
But what Trump’s comments about McCain should remind us of is this: Whether there is political gain to be found in dishonoring a lifelong public servant, it is simply wrong. It is not who we are – or who we should be. That everyone – Republicans, Democrats, independents and all the rest – won’t come together to say that as one is profoundly depressing and disappointing.