At the end of last week, when the White House press corps didn’t get the chance to ask questions in our weekly/daily press briefing and missed the treat of watching Sarah Huckabee Sanders dance and spin as she avoided giving answers, we were instead entertained by the seemingly never-ending sight of President Donald Trump trudging toward Marine One with a frown on his face.
The man never seemed to laugh. “I haven’t even seen him laugh when reporters slip and fall,” one reporter gamely offered. So it was at the end of last week in a month of only three press briefings. Of course, it’s hard to smile when your private attorney, former NSA adviser and former campaign manager are all convicted felons. It’s hard to smile when the deal you’ve made with North Korea is tanking, the Mueller investigation seems to be closing in, your attorney general won’t investigate the Democrats and—even as the First Lady walks with you to the helicopter—it seems she’d like to be anywhere else, including the depths of Hell, than with you.
The economy is a shining bright spot in so much that record deficit spending and deregulation have turned the robber barons loose upon the world to loot and pillage, leaving a smattering of droppings available for those who swarm over the remains of a feast.
But nope. The president still isn’t smiling. So, as the cheerful press corps gathered on the South Lawn waiting for the president’s latest departure from his Oval Office cage, Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley asked me what question I planned to shout at Trump. “John McCain,” I replied.
Gidley nodded and grimaced a bit.
Senator McCain’s family had announced he’d given up taken his medication and the grim realization he would soon lose his fight with cancer was settling in among the populace. Trump didn’t like McCain, and we all knew that. But as McCain was losing his last fight, how would our president remember him?
None of the policy questions seemed as important to me as how the president would treat McCain.
I didn’t agree with what McCain said or did on numerous occasions, but who am I to judge his entire life based on disagreements in policy or personal life?
Here’s why: I didn’t agree with what McCain said or did on numerous occasions, but who am I to judge his entire life based on disagreements in policy or personal life? No one agrees with anyone 100 percent of the time, and it would be a boring world if we did.
Did John McCain make mistakes? Yes, as he often said something Trump has never done. When it was all on the line, John McCain did what I think very few of us would do.
Shot down over Hanoi while on his 23rd Vietnam combat mission in 1967, he ejected from his A-4 Skyhawk and in doing so broke both of his arms, his right leg and got knocked unconscious. He landed in a lake, regained consciousness, had to tread water with broken arms and then was dragged out of the lake and beaten by an angry mob. He got bayoneted in the groin and a soldier broke his shoulder with a rifle butt. He was taken to the “Hanoi Hilton” and left to beg for medical treatment for a week before the doctors set a couple of the broken bones without anesthesia and left his groin wound as it was. He was delirious with pain for weeks. His weight dropped to around 100 pounds. His fellow POWs thought he would die.
After a few months of recovery, he could stand and was taken before the prison commandant. The commandant had found out McCain’s father was a top-ranking naval officer and the North Vietnamese offered to let McCain walk out of the prison—a PR coup for North Vietnam. McCain refused to leave. He wouldn’t give them a PR victory. He wouldn’t leave before others who had been there longer. Unhappy, the North Vietnam prison commandant had the guards break McCain’s ribs, rebreak his arm and knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to go.
Because of those wounds McCain wouldn’t be able to raise his arms above his head the rest of his life. Because he resisted the North Vietnamese, he spent more than five years as a POW. Much of that time he was held in solitary confinement, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” He contemplated suicide. He survived. If those actions don’t give you a reason to respect him, then what will? I believe it says more about you than him.
Trump looked right at me as I asked the question about McCain. He frowned and kept walking. By Monday, McCain was dead and the president still didn’t want to talk about him. ABC’s Jonathan Karl asked the president the same question I had asked, this time in a pool spray event inside the Oval Office. Trump ignored him too and frowned.
“This is not our administration at its best,” a senior White House official told me Tuesday. “McCain carried a lot of water for our party and people loved that man. We should’ve done better.”
But the administration couldn’t do better. It did worse. First flying the flag over the White House at half-staff for a brief time, Monday morning Old Glory was riding high at the top of the staff. Rumors about “protocol” being followed and a half-hearted defense of the move followed. Some members of the base defended the move publicly, but privately were not happy with Trump either. So after members of his own party and finally, the American Legion (with huge political clout), fired out at Trump, the flag was lowered again and Trump—two days after McCain died—said the flag would remain at half-mast and McCain would be afford a state funeral befitting his stature.
Chris Cillizza from CNN tweeted, “Forget grudges. Forget past sniping. There is a gracelessness here by the president of the United States that Is simply appalling.” My senior administration contact was less than sanguine: “We begged him all day long to do the right thing. But when he gets something in his head, it’s hard to get him to budge.” Apparently the American Legion has the right stuff on that count.
Of course, McCain’s words did not publicly move Trump.
In the end though, John McCain got the last laugh on the president and bested him once again. He did not invite Trump to his funeral, but had former Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush eulogize him. And, in the most direct slap at Trump, McCain issued a final written statement to the American people in which he said, “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world...We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
Finally, "We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history."
Of course, McCain’s words did not publicly move Trump. On Monday, the chaotic administration was knee-deep in new chaos. Trump promised a new trade deal with Mexico—a great trade deal. The best trade deal. But he wouldn’t give us a copy of the trade deal, even after I asked for one.
Jared Kushner and two ambassadors held a telephone briefing. Opening statements were on the record, but the answers to our questions were limited to being characterized as being from “a senior administration official,” leading readers to have to guess who it was telling us to “ask Mexico” if we want details.
Gee, who could have said that? A seasoned ambassador?
On Tuesday, Trump forgot Mexico’s great deal and was now upset with Google and as he saw it a perceived bias against him. “He got up early in the morning and googled himself and didn’t like what he saw,” a senior administration official (who wasn’t Kushner) told me.
The North Korean deal continued to fall apart and the administration announced that joint military exercises with South Korea would proceed after all. Trump reached out to evangelicals and told them to help the GOP win in the midterm elections or “violence would follow” if he lost.
The evangelicals immediately thought of Revelations 6:8: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Or perhaps they were thinking of a Johnny Cash song.
Either way, the chaos continued to roll and I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked away from the White House earlier this week. A television technician was singing to himself, "Don’t wanna be an American idiot. Don’t want a nation under the new mania. And can you hear the sound of hysteria?”
As if to answer, I got a phone call from one of my favorite sources inside the White House: “I need a new job.” The next day, after talking extensively to the Robert Mueller investigation, Trump announced White House counsel Don McGahn would leave. I guess someone else needed a new job too.