WASHINGTON – Exchanges between President Donald Trump and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, have been largely limited to sniping at each other through the media and Twitter over the past year.
But the two men were scheduled to meet face-to-face Monday at a private dinner at the White House with Cindy McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, an ally of McCain’s and another frequent Trump antagonist.
The dinner could give the trio an opportunity to patch things up at a time with major congressional battles on the budget and uncertainty over U.S. handling of political and military conflicts worldwide looming.
Neither the White House nor McCain’s office responded to requests for comment on the dinner, but at least one political analyst was not surprised.
“I think they’re practical politicians. They’re going to work with whomever,” said Richard Herrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University.
The dinner follows almost two years of animosity between the senators and the president dating back to 2015, when Trump and Graham were both candidates for the GOP nomination for president.
The conflict between Trump and McCain was catapulted to the national stage when, at a 2015 campaign stop in Iowa, Trump denigrated McCain for being a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said at the time. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Graham and Trump exchanged barbs throughout the campaign. Graham told radio host Brian Kilmeade that Trump’s foreign policy was akin to “a drunk driver going from one lane to the other,” while Trump called Graham “one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen” at an early 2016 campaign event in South Carolina, according to reports.
McCain said throughout the campaign that he would support the party’s nominee, without naming Trump. But both he and Graham announced before the general election that they would not vote for Trump, instead writing in the name of someone they felt was a principled conservative.
The sparring has continued into the Trump presidency, with the two senators taking issue with several White House actions, including claims that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the election.
When they criticized the president’s temporary refugee ban, Trump shot back that they were “weak on immigration” and should focus on ISIS instead. After McCain criticized a raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL, Trump said such criticism “emboldens the enemy” and that McCain had been “losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.”
But Graham and the president had lunch in March. That appears to have led to warmer relations, with Graham telling Fox anchors on Wednesday that “in 80 days, he (Trump) has done more to correct the world than President Obama did in eight years.”
At least one political analyst is hesitant to read too much into Monday’s dinner.
“I think this is another example of Donald Trump just being difficult to read,” said Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections. He said Trump could pursue detente with the two senators over dinner and assail them on Twitter or television 12 hours later.
But McCain might not have to budge, said David Wells, also a political science professor at ASU.
“McCain’s been around the block a few times,” Wells said. “He’s been pretty forthright with his criticisms. I don’t think he’s going to change that.
“There’s increasing signs that the administration is coming closer to a normal, conservative Republican presidency,” Wells said. “(McCain) may be trying to encourage him more along those lines.”
And whatever the senators’ intensions, the president can’t be kept at arm’s length, Wells said.
“Trump is the president. It’s good to have an audience with him,” he said.
A Graham spokesman summarized the expectations for the Monday evening in one word: “Dinner.”