The White House’s John McCain death joke controversy, explained

A White House aide’s joke that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is fighting brain cancer, “is dying anyway” has kicked up a firestorm that won’t die down. The Trump administration is standing by the communications staffer, Kelly Sadler, and reportedly focusing on the leak of the comment more than its substance.

The saga began on Thursday when the Hill reported that Sadler, in an internal meeting, made derisive comments about the Arizona lawmaker after he urged the Senate to reject Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s nominee for CIA director.

McCain said in a statement that her role in overseeing torture by Americans is “disturbing” and that her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is “disqualifying.” Haspel oversaw the torture of a terrorism suspect in a secret prison in Thailand in 2002 and was involved in the destruction of videotapes of the interrogations.

Of McCain’s opposition to Haspel, Sadler reportedly said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.” The Associated Press later confirmed the comments.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday refused to condemn the remark and said she wouldn’t comment on an internal staff meeting. “I’m not going to validate a leak out of an internal staff meeting one way or another,” she said. She said she didn’t want to “get into a back and forth” when asked why she wouldn’t just apologize.

Sen. McCain’s family was obviously bothered by Sadler’s comments and the White House’s apparent indifference to them. “May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren,” his wife, Cindy McCain, wrote to Sadler on Twitter.

His daughter, Meghan McCain, said on ABC’s The View that she didn’t want anyone to “feel bad for me or my family” but that she believes Sadler should be fired. “I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in when that job would be acceptable and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job,” she said.

CBS reported that Sadler reached out to McCain to apologize for the comment.

Former Vice President Joe Biden issued a statement decrying the statement. “People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration,” he said. He said McCain is a “genuine hero” who deserves “so much better.”

Former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney jumped to McCain’s defense on Twitter as well.

It’s the weekend, Kelly Sadler still has a job, and the story isn’t going away.

If the White House believes the problem with Sadler’s comments is really that they leaked, the scenario isn’t getting better.

Axios’ Jonathan Swan reported on Saturday about the backlash in the Trump administration over public reports of Sadler’s remarks. “I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too. And that’s just disgusting,” Huckabee Sanders reportedly said during a Friday communications team meeting about the remark.

According to Swan, Huckabee Sanders said Sadler’s comment was inappropriate but shouldn’t have been told to the press. She called the leak “selfish.” ABC News first reported on the communications meeting, where Sanders called the comment “unacceptable” but was apparently more upset about the leak.

Senior White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp also reportedly expressed her support for Sadler in the meeting, saying, “I stand with Kelly Sadler.”

President Trump and Sen. McCain have a fraught relationship.

Trump on the campaign trail in 2015 famously said he didn’t believe McCain, who spent five years as a prison of war in Vietnam, was a war hero. “He was a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like people who weren’t captured.” And as Vox’s Jane Coaston explained recently, the Trump right has a fierce animus toward the senator.

McCain voted against the Republican Party’s Obamacare repeal efforts in July, joining Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) in sinking the bill with his thumbs down. People close to McCain have reportedly told the White House that he does not want President Trump at his funeral and prefers Vice President Mike Pence come instead. McCain, 81, is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer and is in Arizona undergoing treatment.

Huckabee Sanders was asked by reporters on Friday if a tone set by the president had perhaps contributed to Sadler’s comfort in making her joke about McCain “dying anyway.” She responded that it is “certainly not” the case. “We have a respect for all Americans, and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do, but in word and in action, focusing on doing things that help every American in this country every single day,” she said.

Also this week, First Lady Melania Trump launched her official platform, “Be Best,” an effort to, in part, combat online bullying and promote kindness and civil discourse.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation with Margaret Brennan aired on Sunday said he’s not happy with the White House’s response to Sadler’s comments and thinks it’s a “pretty disgusting” thing to say. “I just wish somebody from the White House would tell the country that was inappropriate, that’s not who we are in the Trump administration,” he said. “And John McCain can be criticized for any political decision he’s ever made or any vote he’s ever cast but he’s an American hero. And I think most Americans would like to see the Trump administration do better in situations like this. It doesn’t hurt you at all to do the right thing and to be big.”

Asked whether the president should apologize, Graham responded, “I’ll leave that up to him, but if something happened like that in my office — somebody in my office said such a, such a thing about somebody, I would apologize on behalf of the office.”

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