On Saturday, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) passed away at age 81. President Trump, who has had a historically awful relationship with McCain, responded in typical Trumpian fashion: he had the White House flag lowered to half-mast for the statutory period, then rose it to full height again despite the tradition of keeping the flag lowered until a sitting senator’s burial. Trump refused to issue a presidential proclamation about McCain, instead tweeting about McCain:
My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 26, 2018
Trump was not invited to McCain’s funeral; he had infamously called into question McCain’s heroism for doing five years in a Viet Cong prison, including two years of solitary confinement. Meanwhile, Trump had joked for years about avoiding STDs in the 1970s, calling it his own personal Vietnam. When asked about McCain’s death at the White House, Trump sat in stony silence.
Pres Trump declined to answer questions at the end of the announcement. Was asked to reflect on the legacy of Sen. McCain, but declined. Sat silent and cross-armed as press pool herded out of the Oval Office. pic.twitter.com/Yzmqnxq14M
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) August 27, 2018
It’s worth noting that half of the media’s enthusiasm for McCain in recent years has come as a direct result of McCain’s opposition to Trump. But whatever the reason, Trump’s behavior is egregious and beneath the office he holds. Trump is being petty and vindictive. That’s no surprise.
His behavior is also dumb politics. Yes, his base loves it — any sign of militancy from Trump makes the base happy, particularly since many conservatives saw McCain as politically wishy-washy at best. Trump’s behavior further cements his base in opposition to the “establishment” — both George W. Bush and Barack Obama will speak at McCain’s funeral. But Trump needs to move beyond his base now. Declaring needless battles with the corpse of a sitting senator and military hero looks small and absurd. Trump’s supporters won’t go anywhere because they have nowhere else to go. But everyone else is far less likely to give Trump the benefit of the doubt as time goes on, no matter how good the economy remains. Character does matter. Hillary had none, so Trump eked out an electoral college victory. But Trump is letting the opportunity to redefine his character and win over admirers slip through his fingers out of pure egotistic brutality.