The two men, while both Republicans, were political foes. McCain was a leading member of the so-called Never Trumpers, conservatives who refused to get onboard the Trump train.
According to reports, the president was disinvited to McCain’s funeral.
Trump made his disdain for McCain clear in the summer of 2015 ― shortly after announcing his presidential run ― by throwing out a belittling comment about the Arizona senator’s military record. He told a crowd gathered at an Iowa political forum that McCain was “not a war hero.”
The future president suggested that others considered McCain a hero “because he was captured.” But Trump said, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump avoided service in the military. McCain, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, was shot down and held prisoner for more than five years. He was repeatedly tortured, but he declined a North Vietnamese offer to release him before others who had been captured earlier. Despite fielding criticism from a vast array of public officials, Trump refused to apologize and reportedly has no regrets.
Days before Trump’s slighting remarks, McCain had said the candidate “fired up the crazies” at the fringes of the GOP with his incendiary comments about Mexican immigrants in McCain’s home state of Arizona.
Over the next few years, the two men continued to clash.
On several occasions last summer, the president taunted and mocked McCain at rallies where Trump’s supporters chanted in response, “Drain the swamp!” McCain set off that criticism when, just days after receiving his devastating medical diagnosis, he voted against a Republican health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare with a dramatic thumbs-down gesture.
Trump seemed unable to let that July 2017 vote go. Months afterward he bashed the senator on Twitter over the failed bill, claiming McCain “let Arizona down!” Nearly a year later, at a Tennessee political rally, the president brought it up again.
Then there was the time Congress passed a bill with McCain’s name on it.
In August 2018, Trump signed the $717 billion defense measure, officially titled the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, but neglected to mention the senator at all at the signing ceremony, instead boasting about a new military branch he wanted to create dubbed the Space Force. (Former Secretary of State John Kerry, another Vietnam War vet, called the scene “disgraceful.”) Trump did reference McCain later that day ― but only to insult him.
In private, the president’s ridicule would reportedly get physical, mocking McCain (and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) with gestures and posturing. Once, during a meeting, White House aide Kelly Sadler reportedly dismissed McCain’s views with a cruel remark: “He’s dying anyway.”
McCain’s rebuttals were generally measured, in contrast to the president’s brash rhetorical style.
When Trump threatened North Korea on Twitter, McCain critiqued the move by saying, “I don’t think that’s a way you attack an issue and a challenge like this.” Of Trump’s performance at the NATO summit in 2018, McCain said it was “disappointing, yet ultimately unsurprising.” After Trump congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his election victory, McCain noted, “An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections.”
McCain described Trump’s July 2018 summit with Putin ― where Trump once again refused to fully accept U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election ― as “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”
Whether Trump will back off the McCain jabs now that the senator has died remains to be seen.
Meghan McCain, the senator’s talk show host daughter, indicated earlier this year that the White House has offered her family private apologies for some of the president’s remarks in the past. But she added that Trump’s attacks are something she’s “never going to forgive.”