WASHINGTON >> The White House today declined to condemn comments made by a special assistant to President Donald Trump dismissing Sen. John McCain’s opinion during a closed-door meeting because, she said, “he’s dying anyway.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters she would not comment on an internal staff meeting, but said that Kelly Sadler, the aide in question, remains a White House staffer.
“I’m not going to validate a leak out of an internal staff meeting one way or the other,” she said.
Sadler was discussing McCain’s opposition to Trump’s pick for CIA director, Gina Haspel, at a communications staff meeting on Thursday when she said that, “it doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway,” two people in the room confirmed to The Associated Press.
The people, who were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity, described feeling shocked and stunned by the remark. The comment was first reported by The Hill newspaper.
The White House had released a more supportive statement Thursday evening that said, “We respect Senator McCain’s service to our nation and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time.”
The 81-year-old Arizona Republican, who has spent three decades in the Senate, was diagnosed in July with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. He left Washington in December and underwent surgery last month for an infection.
Sadler is a special assistant to the president. She did not respond to requests for comment Thursday evening or today.
The incident came the same day a retired Air Force general called McCain “songbird John” during an appearance on Fox Business Network for allegedly providing information to the North Vietnamese while he was a prisoner of war. A Fox spokeswoman said today that retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney will no longer be allowed on the network.
McCain’s wife, Cindy, responded with a tweet tagged to Sadler, “May I remind you my husband has a family, 7 children and 5 grandchildren.”
And McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, weighed in on “The View.” Addressing the statements from both McInerney and Sadler, she said: “I don’t understand the kind of environment you’re working in where that would be acceptable and you can come to work the next day and still have a job.”
“My father’s legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she added. “These people? Nothingburgers.”
Sen. McCain, a Navy pilot who was beaten in captivity during the Vietnam War, has urged his fellow senators to reject Haspel. He said Wednesday that he believes she’s a patriot who loves the country but “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
Haspel faced grilling Wednesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee about her role overseeing some CIA operations after the Sept. 11 attacks. She told senators that she doesn’t believe torture works as an interrogation technique.
As for the president, he and McCain have had a troubled relationship.
As a GOP presidential candidate in 2015, Trump said McCain was “not a war hero” because he was captured in Vietnam, adding, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Last July, McCain became the deciding vote against the GOP health care repeal with a dramatic thumbs-down. Trump later told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “except for one Senator, who came into a room at three o’clock in the morning and went like that” —Trump gave a thumbs-down — “we would have had health care (reform), too.”
The crowd booed, and Trump added, “I won’t use his name.”
Spokeswoman Sanders, however, disputed the idea that the president had set a tone at the top that encouraged derogatory comments like Sadler’s.
“We have a respect for all Americans and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do both in word and in action,” Sanders said.