Sen. Martha McSally says she defended John McCain in talk with President Trump

Sen. Martha McSally defended the late Sen. John McCain in a private conversation she had with President Donald Trump on Wednesday after days of his tweets and statements renewing his rivalry with the veteran Arizona Republican who died last year.

McSally, R-Ariz., on Thursday only sketched out some of her discussion with the president, but she said she spoke up for McCain, the six-term senator and presidential nominee whose seat she now holds.

"I made it clear I love John McCain. John McCain is an American hero," McSally told reporters at Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix. "This state reveres John McCain, and his family deserves respect by everybody. And so that's my message."

Asked if Trump is showing respect to McCain and his family, McSally said: "Again, there is a lot of disrespect going on out there all the way around. I did talk to the president yesterday. I wanted to make sure he understood how I felt about Sen. McCain, and how Arizona felt about Sen. John McCain, and he heard me."

As a member of Congress, McSally actually defended McCain against Trump in 2015, when Trump mocked McCain's POW war record. But running as a Trump-aligned Senate candidate in 2018, McSally came under heavy criticism for not speaking up for McCain as McCain was entering his final months battling deadly brain cancer.

After her appointment to McCain's seat, which took effect in January, McSally has spoken warmly and reverently about McCain. The phone call to Trump is another sign of her intent to protect his legacy in some way.

McSally faces Arizona voters again next year in her bid to finish the final two years of McCain's final six-year term. Trump also is up for re-election in 2020.

McSally issued a rare, veiled rebuke to Trump with a tweet earlier this week in which she defended McCain, but didn't specifically criticize the president for rehashing his problems.

"I am thankful for his life of service and legacy to our country and Arizona," McSally said at that time. "Everyone should give him and his family the respect, admiration, and peace they deserve."

The timing of her call was unclear. The White House did not immediately comment about the phone call.

On Wednesday, Trump escalated his attacks on McCain during an appearance in Ohio.

Trump issued a series of broadsides against McCain starting last weekend, culminating in him telling reporters on Tuesday that he "was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be."

Trump's attacks continued Wednesday during an appearance in Ohio, where he ripped McCain for being weak on veterans issues: "McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets at the VA and they knew it," he said.

McCain was well-known as an advocate for veterans. He was, for example, the lead Republican negotiator on a 2014 VA reform bill that passed in the wake of a nationwide scandal about the manipulated wait-time records of veterans seeking health care.

McCain's former colleagues and Republican peers have denounced the president's attacks in various ways. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, called Trump's comments "deplorable," while Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he was perplexed over Trump's motivation for the continued attacks on his friend.

Republic reporter Ronald J. Hansen contributed to this report. Reach the reporter Yvonne Wingett at or 602-444-4712. Follow her on Twitter @yvonnewingett.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Sen. Martha McSally says she defended John McCain in talk with President Trump