Mitch McConnell wants an apology from White House aide who insulted John McCain

Despite McConnell's sentiments, Senate GOP leaders didn't raise the issue during a lunch meeting with Trump

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 16, 2018 10:05AM (EDT)

John McCain (AP/Patrick Semansky)
John McCain (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for the White House to publicly apologize for a demeaning joke made about Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., even though apparently no Republican senators brought up the incident during a recent lunch with President Donald Trump.

"The person who said that should apologize and should apologize publicly," McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, according to Politico. The comment came after McConnell had visited McCain at his home in Sedona, Arizona, over the weekend. Although still serving in the Senate, McCain has not been able to appear on Capitol Hill for several weeks as he recovers from cancer treatment at his home.

The comment in question occurred as the White House deliberated over McCain's opposition to the nomination of longtime CIA agent Gina Haspel, who reportedly ran a "black site" prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured during the Bush administration, to lead the agency after former director Mike Pompeo was appointed secretary of state, according to Politico.

In a statement, McCain had written: "Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked. I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm."

He added, "I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world."

During a subsequent White House meeting, communications aide Kelly Sadler joked that McCain's opinion doesn't matter because "he’s dying anyway."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah explained to reporters on Monday that "I was told Kelly Sadler called the McCain family late last week and did apologize. I wasn't on the call. I was told she made it prior to the story being published. She apologized for the comment."

Shah also tried to spin the controversy as being primarily about leaks, a constant obsession of the Trump White House. He suggested that White House staffers do not feel confident that they can speak freely without being publicly shamed afterward.

"When you work in any work environment . . . if you aren't able, in internal meetings, to speak your mind or convey thoughts or say anything that you feel without feeling like your colleagues will betray you, that creates a difficult work environment. I think anybody who works anywhere can recognize that," Shah told reporters.

He added, "This is not about my opinion. This is an internal matter. We addressed it internally."

Although many Republicans have openly criticized the Trump White House for Sadler's comment — including Utah Senate candidate and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — none of the GOP senators who attended a luncheon with Trump on Tuesday broached the matter with him. As The Washington Post reported:

“I’ve said how I feel about the comment about Senator McCain. It was unconscionable. I think everybody involved should apologize,” said Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) as he exited the lunch held at the U.S. Capitol. “But this was a policy meeting, right? It was policy-driven.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has had his own personal spats with Trump, added: “That’s not what we do in those meetings.”

Despite this unwillingness to directly confront Trump over the comment, Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., admitted on Tuesday that part of the problem was the Trump White House's unwillingness to own up when it is caught doing something wrong.

"I know it’s probably not their style to make apologies. But I can tell you that I think the vast majority of Americans would say John McCain deserves our respect, and that’s from the top to the bottom," Rounds told reporters on Tuesday.

The Post elaborated on what actually was discussed during the luncheon:

Inside the lunch, Trump expressed confidence in the prospects of flipping the Senate seat in West Virginia held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III while proclaiming that he loves the state so much he may want to move there someday, Kennedy said. Trump appeared eager to take digs at Manchin, telling senators how much the Democratic senator loves the president and hugs him when he sees him, according to a person briefed on the lunch.

GOP Senate candidate Mike Braun, who will face off against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) this fall, was also in attendance, with Trump talking up his prospects in November. As he had during a rally in Elkhart, Ind., last week, Trump derided Donnelly as “Sleepin’ Joe,” according to two people familiar with the lunch meeting.

His remarks were wide-ranging, senators said, veering among the economy, North Korea, Iran and his midterms outlook. Trump also pressed senators to provide him money for a border wall and said he will have more to say on his plans for health care in the coming weeks.

 This upbeat spin on the meeting was emphasized by McConnell in a tweet that he posted afterward.

McCain's daughter Meghan, who is a co-host of "The View," addressed Kelly Sadler's cruel remarks earlier this week.

"Don't feel bad for me or my family," McCain told her viewers. "We're really strong. There's so much more love and prayer and amazing energy being generated towards us then anything negative at all and I feel so blessed. My dad is actually doing really well right now and I believe in the power of prayer and I think it's helping. So I want to thank all the positivity of people with that."

 She added, "The other thing I want to say is that, Kelly [Sadler], here's a little news flash. And this may be a bit intense for 11 o'clock in the morning on a Friday, but: We're all dying. I'm dying, you're dying, we're all dying. I really feel like I understand the meaning of life and it is not how you die, it is how you live. And I always have had something to believe in. My dad's all about character and bipartisanship and something greater than yourself and believing in this country and believing in the fact that we as Americans can still come together."

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Cia Donald Trump Gina Haspel John Mccain Mitch Mcconnell Republicans Senate Republicans Torture