Sparring partners: Trump warns McCain he will ‘fight back’ at some point

President Donald Trump and Arizona Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, have sparred since the presidential campaign, when then-candidate Trump belittled the senator’s military service. But after a McCain speech this week, Trump warned that when he fights back, “it won’t be pretty.” (Photo by Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Arizona Sen. John McCain and President Donald Trump have been at odds for years, but the sparring reached a new height Tuesday when Trump warned that he will fight back at some point “and it won’t be pretty.”

The comments came just hours after McCain gave a speech calling on the U.S. to reassume its role as global leader and reject the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” currently gripping Washington.

McCain said the comment was not directed at the White House but at the mood in Washington generally – a mood in the ’30s that he said led the nation into war.

But Trump, who criticized McCain sharply for votes this summer that killed efforts to repeal Obamacare, called the senator’s actions then a “shocker.” He used the same word to describe McCain’s speech, after radio host Chris Plante told the president that McCain “was talking shots at you again yesterday.”

“People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” Trump told Plante. “You know I’m being nice. I’m being very, very nice, but at some point I’ll fight back and it won’t be pretty.”

McCain declined to respond to the president’s comments when asked by Cronkite News reporters Tuesday, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Trump needs the Arizona senator to help advance the GOP agenda.

“Hopefully they will work it out,” Graham told CNN.

Graham also said that McCain’s speech as targeting a larger audience.

“I took John McCain’s speech to be the direction within the party more than anything else,” Graham said. “There are forces within our party that don’t want us to become isolationists. John McCain is not an isolationist.”

McCain and Trump have been feuding since the campaign, when then-candidate Trump belittled the war experience of McCain, a prisoner of war held by the Vietnamese, saying he preferred heroes who were not captured. It continued through this summer and McCain’s votes against GOP health care reform bills.

The “nationalism” line that appeared to irritate Trump was part of a much larger speech that McCain gave Monday night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he was given the 2017 Liberty Medal.

“To refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of Earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” McCain said Monday, “is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

-Cronkite News video by Bailey Vogt

He went on to say that Americans “have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on our just cause if we don’t.”

The speech expanded on the call McCain has been making since he was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain cancer this summer, a call for more cooperation in Washington.

Monday’s speech did not mention Trump by name and McCain said later Tuesday to CNN that it was aimed at the general attitude that currently pervades Washington.

“There’s an environment here of non-productivity, of a reversion to the attitude of the ’30s, which was one of the major reasons why we fought World War II,” McCain said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who presented the Liberty Medal to McCain, said that Monday’s speech was not surprising to people who know McCain, who Biden said often reminded fellow senators that their first responsibility is to the nation.

It didn’t surprise Bruce Rinehart, either, a high school classmate of McCain’s who was on hand for Monday’s ceremony. In high school, he said, McCain “tested the system many times, and to test the upperclassmen in a small private school, you have to have guts.”