On Friday morning, at a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda honoring the late John McCain, Vice President Mike Pence quoted Donald Trump on the late Arizona senator: "As President Trump said yesterday, we respect his service to the country."
Oh, that's nice!, you might think, listening to Pence. I know Trump and McCain didn't get along in life and Trump did the whole flags-at-full-staff thing but I'm glad Trump took the high road -- even if it took him a little while to get there.
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Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
The quote that Pence read from Trump is a partial quote. Here's the whole exchange and Trump's quote, from an interview he did with Bloomberg on Thursday:
BLOOMBERG: "Mr. President, as you know, of course John McCain's remains are on -- on -- on their way back to Washington now. You had an opportunity to unite the country this week. I'm just wondering if you felt like you screwed it up?"
TRUMP: "No, I don't think I did at all. I -- I've -- I've done everything that they requested, and no, I don't think I have at all. You know, we had our disagreements and they were very strong disagreements. I disagreed with many of the things that I assume he believed in."
"But with that being said, I respect his service to the country."
BLOOMBERG: "Would he -- would McCain have been a better president than Obama?"
TRUMP: "I don't want to comment on it. I have a very strong opinion on it."
BLOOMBERG: "Ooh. We would love to know."
TRUMP: "I have a very strong..."
BLOOMBERG: "That's not -- that's not a terrible question, that..."
TRUMP: "I have a very strong -- Sarah, she's just having a nervous breakdown."
TRUMP: "I have a very strong opinion on it."
BLOOMBERG: "But you want to -- you want to keep that to yourself."
TRUMP: "Maybe I'll give you that answer someday later. Yes. But I have a very strong opinion on that."
Let's start with the beginning of the quote that Pence read. In full, it reads: "You know, we had our disagreements and they were very strong disagreements. I disagreed with many of the things that I assume he believed in. But with that being said, I respect his service to the country."
What we learn from that quote is:
1. Trump and McCain had "very strong disagreements"
2. Trump disagreed with lots of things McCain said he believed in (low-key shade there)
3. Trump respects McCain's service -- or whatever.
Disagree with my third point? Think of it in this context. You ask me whether Karl Malone was a truly great basketball player. I respond this way: "Look, I know lots of people think he is a great player. I disagreed with those people. But with that being said, he scored a lot of points and I respect that he is in the Hall of Fame."
Would you leave that conversation thinking: "Man. Chris really appreciates Karl Malone's greatness?" Of course not. Same goes for Trump.
Then there's the way Trump "answers" the next question as to whether McCain would have made a better president than Barack Obama, had the Republican won in 2008.
"I don't want to comment on it," Trump responded. "I have a very strong opinion on it."
Ask yourself: What "very strong opinion" could Trump have on that question that a) he wouldn't be able to share and b) would give White House press secretary Sarah Sanders a "nervous breakdown?" Surely Trump saying that McCain would have made a better president than Obama wouldn't cause that sort of reaction, right?
Trump knows that. He knows that by not answering the question the way he did, he is making very clear that he does not in fact think that McCain would have been a better president than Obama. That's really something given that Trump, in August 2016, tweeted this about Obama: "President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States!"
If only because Trump is a sitting Republican president who has spent YEARS criticizing every aspect of his predecessor's record, it is utterly baffling that he can't even say whether McCain, his party's 2008 nominee, would have done a better job.
The lack of grace from Trump in this moment is truly remarkable. That Trump gave that interview even as McCain's body was being flown from Arizona to Washington, DC, to be honored goes beyond gracelessness into something darker. That we are talking about the President of the United States behaving like this is almost beyond comprehension.
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