As a Nation Mourns McCain, Trump Is Conspicuously Absent

President Trump did not make even the most cursory public show of respect for John McCain on Sunday, instead spending the day golfing and attacking foes on Twitter.

WASHINGTON — As leaders of both political parties and foreign dignitaries publicly mourned John McCain on Sunday, President Trump conspicuously avoided a national moment of tribute to a senator whose death seemed to be its own metaphor for the demise of civility and unity in the Trump era.

The president did not make even the most cursory public show of respect on Sunday for Mr. McCain, against whom he had continued to indulge a personal grievance even as it was apparent that the Arizona Republican was losing his battle with brain cancer. The president spent much of the day golfing and attacking his usual enemies on Twitter.

It was the start of what promises to be a difficult week for Mr. Trump. Mr. McCain quietly declared before his death that he did not want Mr. Trump to take part in his funeral, a decision that will render the president a virtual pariah as the senator is eulogized by former presidents and other luminaries as a principled war hero and dedicated public servant.

But more than just the culmination of a political feud, the specter of Mr. Trump’s highly visible absence from Mr. McCain’s funeral on Saturday morning at Washington National Cathedral underscored the degree to which the president has veered from the norms of his office, unwilling to act as a unifying force at major moments in the life of the country.

“Everyone, including him, is more comfortable with him not there, and that’s a striking thing on its own, given that he is the president of the United States, and this was a sitting senator who is respected by both sides,” said Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and editor at large of The Weekly Standard. “For better or worse, he’s outside what would have been the bipartisan boundaries, you might say, of American presidents.”

The dynamic reflects a president who wants nothing to do with the establishment and views almost everything as a zero-sum game that revolves around himself.

It also highlights the country’s rabid political polarization, which helped propel Mr. Trump to the White House. On Sunday, an admiring tribute to Mr. McCain tweeted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democratic candidate for a New York congressional seat, was greeted by hundreds of vitriolic replies attacking the dead senator and branding Ms. Ocasio-Cortez a sellout and a panderer for praising him.

Some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, for their part, savaged Mr. McCain on social media, calling him a spiteful person who had betrayed his own party and blackballed the president as his dying wish. Mr. McCain — whom Mr. Trump once mocked for his five and a half years as a prisoner of war — spent the final months of his life as an outspoken Republican voice challenging Mr. Trump at a time when many in his party would not.

“For most of American history, politics stopped when you had the death of a national leader, and the fact that it hasn’t says an awful lot about the current state of our country and our politics, and in particular about Donald Trump,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian. “What you’d want to see is a president acting as graciously and as large-mindedly as possible, in the John McCain spirit, but there is no sign of that yet.”

Mr. McCain had made his wishes clear during the months before his death, as he convalesced at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., receiving visitors and fielding telephone calls from a cast of prominent well-wishers across the political spectrum and around the world.



John McCain: The Making of a Maverick

A look at the formative times and turmoil that shaped a historic American figure, with Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent.

“We’re getting nothing done, my friends. We’re getting nothing done.” It was a few days before the historic Obamacare repeal vote, and Republicans desperately needed John McCain. “It was a dramatic and consequential return for John McCain to the Senate floor.” “What a dramatic morning this is turning out to be, with John McCain making that surprise return to Washington.” “And McCain’s vote is going to give leadership a lot more breathing room.” But the maverick of the Senate had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he was playing hard to get. “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues, because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.” But would he vote with his party, or would he defect? “I will not vote for this bill as it is today.” This was the kind of moment that John McCain lives for. He is going to be the deciding vote, and he’s got control of a major piece of legislation in his hand. “You heard John McCain. A really historic moment. Trying to set a new tone when it comes to fixing our health care system.” When you go against the grain in Washington, you get a lot of attention. “Shutting down the government injured the people of my state. Why? Why would we want to do that?” John McCain had a big ego, and he liked the attention. But also, I do think that the maverick aspect to McCain was real. He saw a lot of the things that went on in Washington as semi-idiotic, or corrupt. “I think the Congress of the United States — both Republicans and Democrats — should be ashamed of themselves. These may be worthy projects. They may be. Generally they aren’t. How many more lawmakers, staffers, government officials, and contractors have to go to jail before we actually fix this process?” He liked challenging authority. It may be part of that is just growing up in a military family and having all that military experience, where you’re subject to so much authority. “I have trouble with this. More than two-syllable words —” In the political phase of his life, he was willing to step up, take a chance, and shake up the system. “Eleven million people live in the shadows, and they live here in de facto amnesty, and, by God, they are being exploited every single day.” Of course, he switched back and forth when it suited his politics. “We will secure the borders first when I am president of the United States. I am proud that Republicans are the party of lower taxes. I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of tax cuts.” There have been so many John McCains over the years. He came to Congress as this exalted war hero who’d already had a national reputation because of his time as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. McCain was shot down, held for years in terrible conditions in the Hanoi Hilton. He had a high profile because of his father. “The commander in chief of our Pacific forces, Admiral John S. McCain Jr.” “As you know, we are living in a troubled world —” They knew that they had something of a celebrity prisoner there. He was tortured, subjected to really unthinkable experiences. He resisted and resisted, but ultimately did make a confession. That really haunted him through the rest of his life. He felt that he had caved and betrayed his country. When he returned from Vietnam, to much acclaim, he was an ambitious guy, and he quickly turned to politics. “John McCain, a name Arizonans are talking about.” He ran for the House. Came in as a pretty conventional conservative — somebody who wanted to get on board the Reagan Revolution. “Speaker, like a poor fellow who brought his horse to water but could not make it drink, Walter Mondale proposes to throw more tax money at the deficit with little chance of making it shrink.” But there was a watershed moment coming for John McCain — “— a major congressional scandal —” The Keating Five Scandal. “Charles Keating, a millionaire banker who has come to embody the savings and loan scandal —” A group of senators — a bipartisan group — had interceded on behalf of a big businessman, and they tried to help him out of a regulatory problem. It was a big scandal at the moment, because the S&L crisis was huge back then. “Do you swear under oath to this committee you were unaware of that at the time?” McCain was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. “But I understand why the committee made the arrangements they did.” He thought it be besmirched his honor, which is probably the most important thing to John McCain besides his family, is his honor. This was a searing experience for McCain, and it really helped shape his later image as a maverick, because he immediately became someone, I think, who wanted to shake up the system and rein in the influence of money and politics. “There’s too much money washing around, and this money makes good people do bad things, and bad people do worse things.” John McCain was ready to do that. His party really wasn’t. They liked the campaign system the way it was, particularly Mitch McConnell. “To effectively discuss issues in this country, one must have access to money.” He was the leading foe of John McCain. “Who do you want to be the next president of these United States? McCain! That’s right.” So McCain had presidential ambitions. 2000 seemed like a good opportunity for him. This was the year of the famous Straight Talk Express. He was really letting it hang out in a lot of ways. “If I were a tree, I would be a —” “If I were a tree, I would be a root. What does that mean? I’d be glad to tell you —” But he ran into a real buzzsaw with the Bush family and Karl Rove. “Let me finish. Let me finish.” “All right, then.” The Bush campaign did some really tough negative advertising. “McCain’s campaign is crawling with lobbyists.” “His conservative hometown paper warns — It’s time the rest of the nation learns about the McCain we know.” McCain was stung when he came back to the Senate, you could tell. “Gentlemen —” “Senator John McCain, the Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, the —” In 2008, this was really John McCain’s last opportunity. He took the nomination, but he was really in trouble from the start. Obama, the celebrity candidate, the economic collapse — “The fundamentals of our economy are strong —” — picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. “This is absolutely overwhelming.” People really questioned John McCain’s judgment on that. Even at the end, McCain was still fighting the leaders of his party. “Yesterday, I received a call from President Putin of Russia —” Being cozy with the Russians, pulling back in Asia. To John McCain, this was anathema. He wouldn’t mention Trump by name, but he would talk about failures of American foreign policy and the conduct. “— refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” This was amped up more after the diagnosis of brain cancer. I think that was also part of his vote on the health care repeal. At the climactic moment, he walked out onto the floor, turned thumbs down, and killed the repeal effort. It was one of his last big acts as a U.S. senator. “Making news in the 11th hour —” “The resistance to President Trump had its biggest victory yet.” “This is a major defeat.” “You could look at this one moment like a Renaissance painting.” “It was unbelievable.” McCain wasn’t going to go quietly.

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A look at the formative times and turmoil that shaped a historic American figure, with Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent.CreditCredit...Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

The president was never one of them. His references to Mr. McCain in recent months were confined to contempt-filled moments at his political rallies when he would mimic the thumbs-down signal the senator had made when he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

So intense was Mr. Trump’s animus for Mr. McCain that, when he traveled to Fort Drum, N.Y., this month to sign a defense bill named in the senator’s honor, the president refused to utter his name. Nor did Mr. Trump join leaders from both parties on Friday in sending sympathy to Mr. McCain and his family after it was announced that he was stopping treatment for his cancer. He died a day later.

On Sunday, flags at the White House were lowered to half-staff to honor the senator, and Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter that “we honor his lifetime of service to this nation in our military and in public life.” But Mr. Trump issued no official statement hailing Mr. McCain. He conveyed his condolences to Mr. McCain’s loved ones on Twitter on Saturday night, but said nothing about Mr. McCain.

“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Our hearts and prayers are with you!”

In the past, funerals for prominent American political leaders have often served a healing function, Mr. Beschloss noted. John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963 offered a backdrop for Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to resolve a more than decade-long feud, as they stood together outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and later sat down for a drink together near the White House.

Before Richard M. Nixon’s funeral in 1994, he and his vice president Spiro T. Agnew had not spoken to each other in more than 20 years, as Mr. Agnew held a grudge against Mr. Nixon for pushing him to resign. However, when he was invited to attend, Mr. Agnew agreed.

But when Barbara Bush died this year, Mr. Trump stayed away from a funeral that drew four of the five living former presidents and Melania Trump, who posed in an iconic photograph with her husband’s predecessors that seemed to highlight his exclusion from the nation’s most exclusive club.

Such periodic comings-together to mourn or recognize a major moment in the nation’s history have been a staple of presidential leadership, said Jon Meacham, the presidential historian.

“From Washington all the way through to President Obama, presidents have had to play a unifying and even transcendent role in affirming a sense of national unity,” Mr. Meacham said. “It has been and it continues to be almost unthinkable that the 45th president could follow in that tradition, and this is yet another example of his inability to bring disparate forces together even on ceremonial occasions.”

Mr. McCain’s plan for his funeral — that he be eulogized by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the two presidents from opposing political parties who vanquished him in his runs for the White House — has only underscored the contrast, Mr. Meacham added.

“John McCain, in death,” he said, “is performing the unifying function that the incumbent president is congenitally incapable of performing.”

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