In life and now in death John McCain continues to torment Donald Trump.
Trump spent last week posthumously attacking the Arizona senator on Twitter, in interviews and in public remarks at an Army tank plant in Lima, Ohio.
“He was horrible,” Trump said in an interview on Fox News on Friday, referring to McCain’s role in the defeat of legislation that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. “I’m not a fan of John McCain and that’s fine.”
Despite pleas from senior Republicans to stop, Trump has continued his verbal assault on McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and six-term senator who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain died seven months ago from brain cancer.
The origins of the Trump-McCain feud stretch back to the beginning of the 2016 presidential election. But their hostile relationship came to embody the battle for the soul of the Republican party – a fate sealed in the president’s favor by Trump’s victory and McCain’s death.
Nearly a month after Trump launched his presidential bid from his hotel disparaging Mexicans as “rapists” and drug dealers in June 2015, he held a rally in Phoenix. McCain, never one to hold his tongue, had previously expressed disdain for the then-candidate’s rhetoric on immigration and the criticism had reportedly gotten back to Trump.
During a stream-of-consciousness performance in Phoenix, Trump promised to “take our country back” and blamed “incompetent politicians” such as McCain for allowing illegal immigration to reach a crisis point.
At the mention of the senator’s name, the crowd booed. Though McCain was beloved in his adopted home state, memorialized as it’s “most fascinating son”, McCain has long been more popular in Arizona with Democrats and independent voters than Republicans.
Days later, McCain, who was running for re-election, said Trump’s comments on immigration “fired up the crazies”. Trump demanded McCain apologize – and then intensified his attack. He then claimed McCain graduated “last in his class” at Naval Academy – “dummy”. The accusation, which Trump has repeatedly leveled at the senator, is false: McCain graduated fifth from the bottom.
Their dispute exploded into a full-blown feud when Trump told an audience in Iowa that McCain wasn’t a “a war hero because he was captured” and that he preferred “people that weren’t captured”.
McCain spent more than five years in captivity in Vietnam after his plane was shot down in 1967. He refused an offer of early release. Trump received draft deferments during Vietnam for bone spurs.
In October, McCain announced that he would not support Trump after the publication of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about grabbing women.
Trump continues to identify McCain as a central antagonist of his presidency and the source of his greatest woes: blaming him for his role in presenting the FBI with an unverified intelligence report, the so-called “Steele dossier”, after the 2016 election. He has repeatedly and falsely blamed McCain for triggering special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. The FBI’s investigation actually began months before it received the “dossier”.
The president has also held a grudge against McCain for his decisive vote against repealing the healthcare law. With a dramatic thumbs-down, he denied Trump the chance to fulfill one of his central campaign promises.
When he died, McCain’s family requested that Trump not attend the funeral services in Arizona and Washington. Former presidents George Bush, who defeated McCain during the 2000 GOP nomination fight, and Barack Obama, who defeated him in 2008, delivered eulogies. For his part, Trump approved the military transport of McCain’s body, and, after much criticism, ordered the flags to half-staff.
Trump’s remarks last week drew a smattering of public denunciations from elected Republican officials, who remain wary of antagonizing the president and his ferociously loyal supporters.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina who is an ally of the president and was one of McCain’s closest friends, said: “I think the president’s comments about senator McCain hurt him more than they hurt the legacy of senator McCain.”
Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican of Georgia, called the remark, “deplorable” and said he would “continue to speak out” in his former colleagues defense. Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw, a former NAVY Seal, implored Trump to “seriously stop talking about Senator McCain”.
Trump’s rolling commentary on McCain has confounded the late politician’s family and friends.
“We only said goodbye to him almost 7 months ago,” his daughter Bridget McCain said in a rare public statement. “Even if you were invited to my dad’s funeral, you would have only wanted to be there for the credit and not for any condolences. Unfortunately, you could not be counted on to be courteous, as you are a child in the most important role the world knows.”