'Maverick' John McCain still fighting political battles as senator with cancer 'says goodbye to friends'

The senator is receiving treatment at his home in Arizona

Andrew Buncombe
New York
Friday 11 May 2018 16:59 BST
Meghan McCain questions how Kelly Sadler could 'still have a job' after joking about 'dying' father

He is receiving treatment for an aggressive, rarely-curable form of cancer. He is obtaining help for the treatment’s side effects. He is welcoming a stream of friends who share memories and “say what needs to be said”, without using the word “goodbye”.

And amid all of this, 81-year-old Senator John McCain remains in the headlines, taking decisions he believes are vital for the well-being of his country and receiving a barrage of vitriol for his behaviour, some of it emanating from the White House.

On Thursday, a White House official telephoned one of the former prisoner of war’s daughters, Meghan McCain, to personally apologise after it emerged she had mocked the senator’s glioblastoma, a pernicious form of brain cancer.

Earlier in the week, Mr McCain, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would not support Mr Trump’s nomination for the next head of the CIA, Gina Haspel.

Mr McCain, a longtime opponent of torture since he endured it during his five years as a prisoner in Vietnam, said Ms Haspel ought not to become head of America’s preeminent intelligence organisation as she has failed to explain her oversight of “black-site” CIA operations in which water-boarding and other such techniques were used during George W Bush’s so-called war on terror.

While Mr McCain was not present for her testimony, as he was receiving treatment in Arizona, he issued a statement saying Ms Haspel, the acting head of the CIA, ought not to get the vote to replace Mike Pompeo, the former director who is now Mr Trump’s secretary of state.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defence,” Mr McCain said.

“However, Ms Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.”

Joe Biden comforts Meghan McCain over her father's cancer diagnosis

After Mr McCain issued his statement, it emerged White House special assistant Kelly Sadler had sought to dismiss the veteran Republican’s views with “a joke”. She reportedly told colleagues: “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

A White House official told CNN that Ms Sadler, who deals with surrogates who speak on behalf of Mr Trump, meant the comment as a joke but one which “fell flat”.

Reports said the phone call between Ms McCain and Ms Sadler did not “go well”, and that the senator’s family was deeply upset by the remark. Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy McCain, responded with a tweet to Ms Sadler, pointing out that “my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren”.

Meghan McCain, who retweeted her mother’s remark, further condemned Ms Sadler’s remark. Appearing on ABC, she said: “I don’t understand what kind of environment you’re working in when that would be acceptable and then you could come to work the next day and still have a job.”

She added: “Don’t feel bad for me or my family There’s so much more love and prayer and amazing energy being generated towards us. It is not how you die, it is how you live.”

This is not the first time that Mr McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Barack Obama, has been on the receiving ends of harsh words from either the Trump administration, or the president.

During his campaign for the White House, Mr Trump, who received five draft deferrals for Vietnam, some of which were for purportedly having bone spurs, made fun of Mr McCain’s status as a US war hero.

“He’s not a war hero,” Mr Trump said in 2015, of the man whose nickname was “The Maverick” when he challenged Mr Bush for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

The relationship between the two men – both of whom are frequently abrasive and with considerable egos – has remained tense. During the 2016 campaign, Mr McCain endorsed Mr Trump despite his reservations, because he himself was seeking re-election to the senate and realised he would need the backing of the former reality television star’s supporters.

Since Mr Trump has entered the White House, and as Mr McCain has entered what many suspect is the twilight of his political career, the senator has become more outspoken, and more concerned about doing the right thing, something he has acknowledged he failed to do when he agreed to have Tea Party-favourite Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate. In a new memoir, The Restless Wave, he said he ought to have opted for his friend, former senator Joseph Lieberman.

Mr Trump was furious in July last year after the Arizona senator voted against a measure that would have scrapped Mr Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act, something the president was determined to see consigned to the dustbin of history.

A recent New York Times report on Mr McCain as he receives treatment and meets friends, said he had been leading conference calls with his staff in a strained voice, holding three-hour physical therapy sessions and ending most days with a glass of Absolut Elyx on ice.

“John knows he’s in a very, very, very precarious situation, and yet he’s still concerned about the state of the country,” former vice president Joe Biden told the newspaper. “We talked about how our international reputation is being damaged and we talked about the need for people to stand up and speak out.”

On Friday, Mr McCain’s office did not respond to requests for comment about Ms Sadler’s comment or her apology. In a statement, the White House did not seek to deny she had made the remark, but added: “We respect Senator McCain’s service to our nation, and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time.”

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