Courage, Always Courage

GOP Senators Chicken Out on Defending McCain to Trump’s Face

They complained and talked tough to the press for days. But once they had the president in the room, nobody said a word.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

One of the knocks on Donald Trump is that he talks and tweets like a tough guy but in personal situations is conflict averse. We hear this every time he refuses to personally fire someone.

The same could be said of Members of the United States Senate. They talk a good game, but when it comes to personally confronting Trump, their knees get weak.

Case in point: A couple days ago, Republican Senators were publicly chiding Donald Trump over the administration’s refusal to apologize for leaked remarks about Senator John McCain (as you may recall, White House aide Kelly Sadler said McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel as  CIA director nominee “doesn’t matter, [because] he’s dying anyway.”)

Asked if the White House should apologize for the comment, Marco Rubio said, “I believe so. Certainly the comments were made, and no one’s denied they were made. I find them to be offensive and I think more indicative of what our politics has become, so angry and bitter.”

“The smart thing to do would have been five days ago to just nip it in the bud and come out and apologize for it,” said Sen. John Thune.

Several other senators are on the record calling for an apology, though many couched it in terms that suggest it is Sadler who should publicly apologize (for what it’s worth, she reportedly did privately phone Meghan McCain to apologize). Instead, the administration tried to make this a story about leaks—not about disparaging a Vietnam P.O.W. who is battling brain cancer.

Why no mention of McCain? “That’s not what we do in these meetings,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. “No one would have ever brought up something like that.”

Regardless, numerous Senate Republicans were outspoken in their insistence that an apology was due. And this makes sense. McCain is a colleague to all, and a friend to many. He was the Republican standard bearer in 2008. The Senate is notoriously chummy. And McCain is an American hero.

But during a closed-door lunch on Tuesday, the controversy didn’t come up.

That’s right. Not one single Senate Republican took an opportunity to press Trump on Sadler's comments. They just let him speak and praised him.

Why no mention of McCain? “That’s not what we do in these meetings,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. “No one would have ever brought up something like that.”

“He wanted to talk about anything and not take questions. ... He gave us a lesson in filibustering. ... He knew he was going to get some tough questions on McCain and ZTE,” said Senator Jeff Flake. Maybe it was a strategy? Trump dominated the room, voicing confidence about the midterm elections, updating lawmakers on diplomatic talks with North Korea and even musing about retiring one day to West Virginia,” reported the Hill. Still, you would think that if a senator wanted to ask the question, one could have.

In fairness, these meetings usually focus on public policy and political strategy. But as far as I know, there’s no law that would prevent a Republican senator from bringing up something to the president that they have been complaining to the media about for days.

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There are numerous ways to interpret this, but one thing is clear: Despite the scandals and stumbles, Trump’s political power is, in fact, hardly diminished. They fear the guy.

And it's not just them. It's the Democrat’s too.

As the Daily Beast’s Sam Stein joked the other day, “Trump is so politically toxic that every Democrat in a tight Senate race is voting to confirm his most controversial nominees.”

He has a point. The aforementioned Gina Haspel, who once ran a secret prison that waterboarded detainees, has won the support of Senators Mark Warner (D-Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) to become the next CIA director (McCain opposes her nomination). As New York Magazine put it, “The support from the five Democrats, most of whom are facing tough reelection battles in the fall, means that Haspel will almost certainly be confirmed.

Now, to be fair, most of these candidates are in tough races in states that Trump won big league. But that’s just the point. If Trump were toxic, Democratic senators could get away with opposing such a controversial nominee. Trump, it seems, still has juice.

This, of course, could change if the midterms end up disastrous. In the wake of the Republican Revolution, President Bill Clinton found himself declaring that “the president is relevant.” Someday, Trump might find himself in a similar situation. For now, at least, there’s no question that the president is still relevant.

All you have to do is look at the senators scurry as they hang their dying colleague out to dry.