The president did not make even the most cursory public show of respect Sunday for McCain, against whom he had continued to indulge a personal grievance even as it was apparent the Arizona Republican was losing his battle with brain cancer.
WASHINGTON — As leaders of both political parties and foreign dignitaries publicly mourned Sen. John McCain on Sunday, President Donald Trump conspicuously avoided a national moment of tribute to a senator whose death seemed to be its own metaphor for the demise of civility and unity in the Trump era.
The president did not make even the most cursory public show of respect Sunday for McCain, against whom he had continued to indulge a personal grievance even as it was apparent the Arizona Republican was losing his battle with brain cancer. The president spent much of the day golfing and attacking his usual enemies on Twitter.
It was the start of what promises to be a difficult week for Trump. McCain quietly declared before his death that he did not want Trump to take part in his funeral, a decision that will render the president a virtual pariah as the senator is eulogized by former presidents and other luminaries as a principled war hero and dedicated public servant.
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The Washington Post reported Sunday that Trump nixed issuing a statement that praised the heroism and life of McCain, telling senior aides he preferred to issue a tweet before posting one Saturday night that did not include any kind words for the late Arizona Republican.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Chief of Staff John Kelly and other White House aides advocated for an official statement that gave the decorated Vietnam War POW plaudits for his military and Senate service and called him a “hero,” according to current and former White House aides, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. The original statement was drafted before McCain died Saturday, and Sanders and others edited a final version this weekend that was ready for the president, the aides said.
But Trump told aides he wanted to post a brief tweet instead, and the statement praising McCain’s life was not released.
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!” Trump posted Saturday evening shortly after McCain’s death was announced.
Sanders declined to comment Sunday afternoon.
White House aides instead posted statements from officials other than the president praising McCain. By Sunday afternoon, the vice president, secretary of state, homeland-security secretary, defense secretary, national-security adviser, White House press secretary, counselor to the president, education secretary, interior secretary and others had posted statements lauding the former 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush posted glowing eulogies as well.
As tributes poured in, the president who said McCain was “not a war hero” spent much of Sunday at his golf course in Virginia and did not utter a word publicly. He returned to the White House in the afternoon, where the flags were lowered to half-staff for the deceased senator.
More than just the culmination of a political feud, the specter of Trump’s highly visible absence from McCain’s funeral observances underscored the degree to which the president has veered from the norms of his office, unwilling to act as a unifying force at major moments in the life of the country.
It also highlights the country’s rabid political polarization, which helped propel Trump to the White House. On Sunday, an admiring tribute to McCain tweeted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democratic candidate for a New York congressional seat, was greeted by hundreds of vitriolic replies attacking the dead senator and branding Ocasio-Cortez a sellout and a panderer for praising him.
Some of Trump’s supporters, for their part, savaged McCain on social media, calling him a spiteful person who had betrayed his own party and blackballed the president as his dying wish. McCain spent the final months of his life as an outspoken Republican voice challenging Trump at a time when many in his party would not.
“For most of American history, politics stopped when you had the death of a national leader, and the fact that it hasn’t says an awful lot about the current state of our country and our politics, and in particular about Donald Trump,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “What you’d want to see is a president acting as graciously and as large-mindedly as possible, in the John McCain spirit, but there is no sign of that yet.”
Trump’s references to McCain in recent months were confined to contempt-filled moments at his political rallies when he would mimic the thumbs-down signal the senator had made when he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act.
So intense was Trump’s animus for McCain that, when he traveled to Fort Drum, New York, this month to sign a defense bill named in the senator’s honor, the president refused to utter his name. Nor did Trump join leaders from both parties Friday in sending sympathy to McCain and his family after it was announced that he was stopping treatment for his cancer. He died a day later.
In the past, funerals for prominent U.S. political leaders have often served a healing function, Beschloss noted. President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 offered a backdrop for former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to resolve a more than decadelong feud, as they stood together outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and later sat down for a drink together.
Before President Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994, he and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had not spoken to each other in more than 20 years, as Agnew held a grudge against Nixon for pushing him to resign. However, when he was invited to attend, Agnew agreed.
But when former first lady Barbara Bush died this year, Trump stayed away from a funeral that drew four of the five living former presidents and first lady Melania Trump, who posed in a photograph with her husband’s predecessors that seemed to highlight his exclusion from the nation’s most exclusive club.
Such periodic comings-together to mourn or recognize a major moment in the nation’s history have been a staple of presidential leadership, presidential historian Jon Meacham said.
“From Washington all the way through to President Obama, presidents have had to play a unifying and even transcendent role in affirming a sense of national unity,” Meacham said. “It has been and it continues to be almost unthinkable that the 45th president could follow in that tradition, and this is yet another example of his inability to bring disparate forces together even on ceremonial occasions.”
McCain’s plan for his funeral — that he be eulogized by both former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the two presidents from opposing political parties who vanquished him in his runs for the White House — has only underscored the contrast, Meacham added.
“John McCain, in death,” he said, “is performing the unifying function that the incumbent president is congenitally incapable of performing.”