Last October, after one of his numerous public tiffs with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., President Donald Trump vowed that while he was currently "being very, very nice," one day he would "fight back, and it won’t be pretty." On Monday, Trump decided to strike against the American war hero once again.
As Trump honored the signing of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, named after the veteran Arizona Republican, the president paid tribute to a number of GOP congresspeople including Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Don Bacon of Nebraska, Dan Donovan of New York, Martha McSally of Arizona and Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Left unmentioned in Trump's 28-minute speech: John McCain.
The war hero responded by going high, despite his adversary's below-the-belt behavior. In an official statement released on Tuesday, McCain offered his own thoughts on the bill but ignored Trump's snub. After touting the merits of the legislation that bears his name, McCain went on to say:
I’m humbled that my colleagues in Congress chose to designate this bill in my name. Serving as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and working on behalf of America's brave service members has been one of the greatest honors of my life. I'm proud that throughout my tenure, the committee has led with a spirit of comity and cooperation to provide for America’s Armed Forces. There is no higher calling than to serve a cause greater than self-interest. Through the committee’s work, I’ve been privileged to support our men and women in uniform who have dedicated their lives to that noble cause.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Democratic presidential candidate and senator who is a good friend of John McCain's, was more direct in expressing disgust with Trump's behavior.
"Disgraceful - but nothing will erase for an instant the legacy John McCain has written and is still writing every day," Kerry wrote on Twitter.
CNN anchor Jake Tapper implicitly admonished Trump by praising McCain on his show. "Since President Trump would not do it, let us here on The Lead congratulate Senator John McCain and his family and thank him for his service to the country," Tapper said on Monday.
Trump and McCain have a long history of feuding, one that stretches back to when Trump was still a candidate for the presidency. During the 2016 election, Trump responded to a criticism from McCain by calling into question whether he should be considered a war hero "because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured," according to Time Magazine. Later during the election, after an "Access Hollywood" tape was released that showed Trump bragging about committing sexual assault against women, McCain withdrew his support for Trump. The future president responded by tweeting, "The very foul mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!"
By 2017, McCain had made history as the man who voted down the Trump administration's last major effort to repeal President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. After he did so, Trump took to Twitter to denounce him for betraying his state.
"John McCain never had any intention of voting for this Bill, which his Governor loves. He campaigned on Repeal & Replace. Let Arizona down!" Trump wrote.
When asked on CBS' "60 Minutes" if the vote was personal, McCain insisted that it was not, but he did add that he felt that he and Trump came from diametrically different backgrounds.
"He is in the business of making money and he has been successful both in television as well as Miss America and others. I was raised in a military family," McCain said. He added that "I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor, country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day."
When receiving a Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center last October, McCain took a veiled shot at Trump's foreign policies, arguing that it was comprised of "half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems."
He added, "To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century" should be regarded as being as "unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history."
It was in response to this address that Trump warned McCain that he would "fight back" and said, "I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point, I fight back, and it won’t be pretty."
McCain did not stop the quarrel there, however.
Later, when describing how he regretted the fact that poor Americans were frequently forced to serve during the Vietnam War while their wealthier counterparts found ways to duck service, McCain pointedly referenced Trump's own ability to get five deferments, including one for an alleged bone spur in his heel.
"One aspect of the [Vietnam] conflict by the way that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve," McCain said.
None of this is being recorded in order to hail McCain as a saint. When it comes to Trump's economic policies that run up trillions of dollars in our budget deficit to help the wealthy and deregulate big business, McCain has been right there supporting Trump. He even contradicted his initial claim of having voted against Trump's Obamacare repeal on the grounds that the bill wasn't developed in a bipartisan way by supporting subsequent legislation that was also rammed through by Republicans without Democratic support. Yet for all of his faults, McCain is without question an American war hero.
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Matthew Rozsa is a breaking news writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC. MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa
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