A Brief History of Trump’s Feud With John McCain

Donald Trump speaking at the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center in Lima, Ohio, on March 20, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The president, who surely has better things to do, is still feuding with John McCain seven months after the Arizona senator passed away from brain cancer. Though he endorsed McCain in the 2008 presidential race, Trump has made a public show of belittling the late senator, at first for losing to Barack Obama, perhaps the only figure more reviled than McCain in the Trump extended universe. Later, Trump hurled potshots at McCain for being the rare GOP figure to continually stand up to Trump in his rhetoric, if not necessarily in his voting record.

“I know John McCain, and John McCain’s a great guy, tremendous guy,” Trump told Larry King in September 2008, in one of the last breaths of praise he would bestow on the senator. Below, a highlight reel of moments in which Trump said otherwise.


In 2015, Trump — who sat out the Vietnam War with allegedly bogus bone spurs — notoriously attacked McCain for his service, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” In August 2018, the month of McCain’s death, a video of Trump’s 1999 interview with Dan Rather began to make the rounds, in which he tried out the line for McCain’s 2000 presidential run. In announcing his creation of an exploratory committee to run for the Reform party, Trump told Rather he was a better candidate than McCain: “He was captured. Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”


During Obama’s reelection campaign, Trump took some comparatively subtle jabs at McCain for losing the ’08 race. Trump dismissed the McCain campaign as “nice & respectful.” “I’ll bet John wished he had that decision to do over again,” he tweeted.


Another relatively urbane critique of McCain, who Trump censured for visiting Syrian rebels during the beginning of the country’s civil war:


Trump, claiming the racist birtherism movement is a success, cited a victory in pressuring Obama into releasing his birth certificate:


In May 2015, prior to his campaign announcement, Trump tweeted that a GOP candidate “with an actual backbone would be refreshing.” After Trump announced his primary run with his tone-setting racist statement toward Mexican migrants — “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” — McCain told the Arizona Republic that he “disagree[d] with his comments about the, quote, Mexicans.”

As the Trump campaign gained early momentum, the two went back and forth throughout July. After an especially fired-up MAGA rally in Arizona in which Trump called McCain “incompetent,” McCain told The New Yorker that Trump’s rally “fired up the crazies.” Trump demanded McCain apologize, called him a “dummy,” and went on a Twitter spree, hurling some 21 insults at McCain in just five days. On July 18, at a rally in Iowa, Trump escalated the tension when he said McCain was not a war hero “because he was captured” and “I like people who weren’t captured.”


In April, as it became clear that Trump would secure the nomination, McCain announced he would not attend the Republican National Convention in July. But the next month, the two entered a period of detente: McCain announced he would vote for Trump “because I’m a proud Republican and I support the Republican party.” Trump, happy to hear even a reluctant endorsement, responded, saying, “You know, frankly, I like John McCain, and John McCain is a hero. Also heroes are people that are, you know, whether they get caught or don’t get caught, they’re all heroes as far as I’m concerned. And that’s the way it should be.”

Even after Trump insulted the parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, McCain did not withdraw his endorsement of Trump, telling reporters that if he were to change his mind on the matter, “I’ll let you know.” He did, after the Access Hollywood tape was released in October 2016: “Donald Trump’s behavior this week, concluding with the disclosure of his demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults, make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.” McCain told reporters he would “write in the name of some good conservative Republican who is qualified to be president.”


In July 2017, John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer; Trump responded with a tepid “thoughts and prayers” tweet to the senator and his family. That same month, McCain handed Trump the worst loss of his presidency at that point, providing the deciding vote against the “skinny” repeal of Obamacare in dramatic fashion, appearing on the Senate floor weeks after his cancer diagnosis and giving a literal thumbs-down. Two months later, Trump shot back at three in the morning:


In May, as Trump sought to appoint Gina Haspel as CIA director, McCain lobbied other senators to deny her nomination, citing her involvement in the agency’s torture practices in 2002. (McCain was tortured in Hanoi when he was a prisoner of war.) Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president, reportedly said that the senator’s opinion “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway.”

In July, as if to keep up their annual summer beef, McCain lashed out at Trump, after the president co-hosted a deferential joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, in which Trump said “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia who interfered in the 2016 election.

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a prepared statement. “He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.”

On August 25, 2018, Senator John McCain passed after a year battling brain cancer, to which Trump responded with another “thoughts and prayers” tweet to the McCain family that did not specifically praise McCain. Eventually, Trump gave in, issuing a lukewarm statement: “Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country.”

The Arizona senator reportedly “[did] not want” the president at his funeral, a request his family honored. Trump played golf at his club in Virginia the day of McCain’s funeral.


As if haunted by the late senator, Trump has not been able to overcome the conflict. Last week, Trump tied together this squabble with the dominant thread of his presidency, claiming that McCain’s decision to send the Steele dossier to the FBI was an attack against him.

On Wednesday, Trump issued one of the more bizarre comments of his presidency, griping with a senator that has been dead for almost seven months. “I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as president I had to approve,” Trump said, in front of a crowd at an Army tank manufacturing plant in Ohio. “I don’t care about this. I didn’t get [a] thank you. That’s okay. We sent him on the way, but I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”

A Brief History of Trump’s Feud With John McCain