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John McCain will win his feud with Donald Trump from beyond the grave

Kim Sengupta
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John McCain will win his feud with Donald Trump from beyond the grave

It has been seven months since John McCain died but Donald Trump cannot appear to let the feud he started with the late senator rest in peace.

The president has come out with a new set of rambling rants and insults ranging from complaints about his voting record to his funeral and the Russia inquiry.

Embarrassed senior Republicans have asked Mr Trump to put an end to the disturbing and distasteful venom, but he seems to be driven to continue what is now a bizarre, one-sided affair.

Their feud began 19 years ago when Trump was first considering running for the presidency. McCain was also a possible candidate, and one lauded as a courageous Vietnam veteran. Trump had dodged the Vietnam draft not on ideological grounds, but for a medical condition – bone spurs, a condition that later miraculously disappeared.

Apprehensive about unfavourable comparison, Trump focused on the time McCain, a naval pilot, had spent as a prisoner of war after being shot down.

“He was captured,” he said in an interview with CBS. “Does being captured make you a hero? I am not sure.”

Trump was roundly criticised for his comments. But this did not stop him from questioning McCain’s valour again years later.

Fifteen years on, when Trump again began a presidential campaign, McCain expressed unhappiness when the real-estate businessman declared that immigrants were “rapists” and “drug smugglers”. Trump, smarting, sought revenge at a rally in July 2015, denouncing McCain as being “weak” on immigration.

“We have incompetent politicians, not only the president [Barack Obama] – right here in your own state you have John McCain,” he went on, encouraging the crowd to boo the senator. McCain tried to ignore Trump for a few days, but after the candidate’s rabble-rousing continued, he responded in a scathing piece in the New Yorker, accusing Trump of “firing up crazies”.

Trump, in turn, called the senator “a dummy” and, three days later, repeated that he was not “a war hero because he was captured... I prefer people that weren’t captured”.

The irony of a draft dodger attacking someone who had made great sacrifices for his country in a war was pointed out yet again.

McCain should, perhaps, have kept the higher moral ground. But the following year, in an interview on the Vietnam War, he said: “We drafted the lowest income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur.”

Relations had deteriorated badly by then. McCain, now the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had severely criticised Trump over remarks he made about Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim soldier in the army who died in Iraq in 2004. He withdrew support for Trump’s candidacy after a recording emerged of Trump discussing “grabbing” women “by the pussy”.

There were other spats after Trump got to the White House, with the president accusing McCain of caving in to the Democrats over Obamacare and the senator expressing grave concern about Trump’s views on Russia and Ukraine.

In May 2018, after McCain had been diagnosed with cancer, it was reported that the senator did not want Trump to attend his funeral. The following month, the president again attacked McCain over Obamacare.

Senator McCain died in August 2018. There was a public outcry and protests from the American Legion and other veterans groups after Trump ordered the raising of US flags just 48 hours after they had been lowered.

The flags were lowered again, but Trump refused to release a White House statement praising McCain – countermanding officials including, it is said, defence secretary James Mattis. General Mattis, in his own statement, lauded McCain for a life embodying the military motto “not for self, but for country” – the opposite of the conduct of the sitting president, according to his many critics.

The following month, respecting McCain’s wishes, Trump did not attend the senator’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. The president’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law Jared Kushner turned up at the service. The senator’s daughter, Meghan McCain, said they had not been invited by the family.

That is where matters remained until Trump’s latest outbursts. These included complaints that he had never been thanked (presumably by the senator’s family) for “giving approval” for the funeral to be held at the Washington National Cathedral. He also returned to criticism of McCain’s stance on Obamacare and on the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into allegations of Kremlin manipulation of the 2016 US presidential election.

In response, the cathedral said in a statement: “There was no need for the president to give approval to the funeral services held at the cathedral for the late Arizona senator John McCain... All funerals and memorial services at the sathedral are organised by the family of the deceased; only a state funeral for a former president involves consultation with government officials. No funeral at the cathedral requires the approval of the president or any other government official.”

Meghan McCain observed about Trump: “He spends his weekend obsessing over great men because – he knows it and I know it and all of you know it – he will never be a great man.”

But there was something Trump said while complaining about the funeral that is of great significance. He accused McCain of giving the FBI a report by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele about Trump and Russia “for a very evil purpose”.

It is indeed the case that the senator played a key role in the report becoming a highly important part of the Russia inquiry. McCain met Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow, who had spent 10 years in Russia and is highly respected for his knowledge of Russian affairs, at a security conference in Halifax, Canada.

The Steele dossier was discussed. Sir Andrew stressed to McCain that he had not read the dossier, but vouched for Steele’s professionalism and integrity. McCain then sent an emissary to London who picked up the dossier from an intermediary acting on behalf of Steele. The senator then personally took the material to James Comey, the head of the FBI.

Comey, of course, was later fired by Trump, and this in turn led to the launch of the investigation into Kremlin collusion by Mr Mueller. As we know, the quest to discover whether the current president of the United States was the Muscovian candidate for the White House very much continues.

Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, national security advisor Michael Flynn and personal lawyer Michael Cohen have been arrested and charged amid explosive revelations. Robert Mueller’s report is expected to be delivered in the near future.

The fallout from the feud Donald Trump started with John McCain is still to fully play out. And it is former Captain John McCain of the US Navy, rather than Donald Trump the self-proclaimed “genius” with the disappeared bone spur, who will most likely end up the resounding winner.