Until 4 p.m. ET on Monday, here was the totality of President Donald Trump's reaction to the death of Arizona Sen. John McCain over the weekend: "My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!"
That was a tweet Trump sent on Saturday night shortly after the news of McCain's passing was made public. On Monday, during a series of events at the White House, Trump was asked on five occasions if he wanted to add anything to that tweet or say anything at all about McCain. He said nothing. Meanwhile, the flag over the White House, which had flown at half-staff since McCain's death Saturday night, was returned to full-staff on Monday morning.
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After a day's worth of incoming negative attention, the White House moved the flag back to half-staff and released an official statement on McCain's death. Here's how it started:
"Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain's service to our country and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment."
Despite our differences? The man is dead! He spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp! He served in elected office for almost four decades! (The rest of the four-paragraph statement dealt mostly with logistical details Trump had approved for the weeklong remembrance ceremonies, CNN's Kevin Liptak reported).
That the President of the United States -- a man who famously/infamously said McCain was only a war hero because he had been captured -- had to be led, kicking and screaming, to do the most basic honoring of someone who spent a lifetime in service of the country is appalling. There's simply no other word for it.
But Trump's smallness highlights two important things to remember about him:
1) He NEVER takes the high road. Presidents prior to Trump believed the office to be, in part, about demonstrating moral leadership. Of course they had their own ambitions, hopes and desires but they at least made a bow to the idea that in being president, you have to put the "we" before the "me." That the high road is the one you take even if it's not nearly as satisfying in the short term. Because this isn't about you -- any president is simply renting the office, which ultimately belongs to the people and the country. Trump has given all sorts of examples that demonstrate he doesn't believe in the moral leadership element of the presidency -- from his reaction to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 to his lack of grace in response to McCain's death.
2) He doesn't DO empathy for his enemies. I'm not convinced Trump does empathy even for his friends. But he definitely doesn't do it for people who he considered his opponents. McCain and Trump had feuded in the past -- the whole not-a-war-hero thing didn't go over well, and McCain's health care vote has been a common punching bag for Trump at rallies -- and there's no question the Arizona Republican was a frequent Trump critic who offered no olive branch by making clear he didn't want Trump at his funeral. That said, McCain was not only a war hero but a leader within the Republican Party -- don't forget he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008. To put aside personal enmity and grieve for the loss of someone who sacrificed so much for the country seems like such an easy thing to do. But not for Donald Trump.
The Point: The death of a long-serving Republican senator and war hero should be an absolute slam dunk for a Republican president, politically speaking. Honor his service, mourn for his family and ask that people remember the sacrifice he made. Donald Trump did none of those things, turning what should be a celebration of a life well lived in service of the country into a grudging and belated acknowledgment of a man who gave so much.
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