Trump attacks on McCain seem to be stirring up support for late senator

President Donald Trump takes the stage Wednesday in front of workers at the Lima (Ohio) Army Tank Plant, where his speech about manufacturing jobs and defense spending veered into more criticism of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. (Photo by Shealah Craighead/White House)

Republican Sen. John McCain, who died in August after a battle with brain cancer, was held for years as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. Then-candidate Donald Trump, who did not serve in Vietnam, said in 2016 that McCain was no hero because he had been captured. (Photo by Keerthi Vedantam/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – It’s no secret that President Donald Trump is not a fan of the late Sen. John McCain, but instead of weakening the McCain fan club the president’s latest string of attacks may be having the opposite effect.

Republican senators have come forward to defend their former colleague, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has dusted off a proposal to rename a Senate building in McCain’s honor, and analysts are left wondering what good Trump thinks will come of it.

It’s all in response to several days of attacks on the Arizona Republican that began Saturday with a Trump tweet accusing McCain of being behind the special counsel’s probe of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

That was followed by more tweets in which Trump mocked McCain for finishing near the bottom of his Naval Academy class and brought up McCain’s dramatic 2017 thumbs-down vote that preserved Obamacare.

It culminated Wednesday with a speech at a Lima, Ohio, tank factory where Trump, without prompting, veered off script in a speech about defense spending and manufacturing jobs to complain about McCain.

“So, I have to be honest, I’ve never liked him much,” Trump told the assembled workers before adding he “probably never will.”

What followed was five minutes in which Trump repeated the Naval Academy and dossier claims, again brought up the Obamacare vote, criticized McCain’s support of U.S. involvement in Middle East wars and complained that he was never sufficiently thanked for his role in McCain’s funeral – approving the use of a plane to carry the casket from Phoenix to Washington.

Trump also raised a new complaint, that McCain “didn’t get the job done for our great vets” by improving medical care at the Veterans Administration.

“The vets were on my side because I got the job done. I got Choice and I got Accountability,” Trump said.

But the Choice bill, which lets vets seek treatment outside the VA, was sponsored by McCain and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and signed in 2014. An update to that bill, which Trump signed in May, is actually named for McCain and two other vets who served in Congress.

Before turning back to his prepared speech, Trump noted that “some people like him (McCain) and I think that’s great.”

It was the only part of the speech that everybody might agree on.

“We saw that with the funeral, this is a man who was beloved across a whole lot of categories,” Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said of McCain. He called Trump’s comments “shocking and ridiculous.”

Meghan McCain, who has long battled Trump over her father’s legacy, said Wednesday on her talk show, “The View,” that McCain would “think it was hilarious that our president was so jealous of him that he was dominating the news cycle in death as well.”

Cindy McCain posted a screenshot to her Twitter account Tuesday of vulgar comments directed at her and Meghan after they criticized the president. On Thursday, she sent a fundraising appeal on behalf of the McCain Institute for donations to “protect John’s legacy.”

-Cronkite news video by Alissa Klink

“Friends, the legacy and record of John McCain are under attack,” the letter said. “Today, the fight we are fighting is for John’s integrity, his record and his legacy.”

Schumer, who had proposed renaming a building for McCain shortly after his Aug. 25 death from brain cancer, tweeted Wednesday that he looks forward “to soon reintroducing my legislation renaming the Senate Russell Building after American hero, Senator John McCain.”

Republican lawmakers have also taken McCain’s side. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, told Georgia Public Broadcasting that Trump’s comments were “deplorable.” Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, tweeted praise for McCain without mentioning the president’s remarks.

“John McCain is an American hero and I am thankful for his life of service and legacy to our country and Arizona,” McSally said. “Everyone should give him and his family the respect, admiration, and peace they deserve.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, told reporters Wednesday that Trump’s comments “hurt him more than they hurt the legacy of Sen. McCain.”

“I don’t like when he says things about my friend John McCain,” Graham said. “The best thing that can happen, I think, for all of us is to move forward.”

Others wondered what Trump hoped to get from attacking a man who died seven months ago.

Mike Noble, chief of research and managing partner for OH predictive insights, a Phoenix polling company, said he does not “really see the upside” for Trump’s comments, particularly when moderates could be important in Arizona in the 2020 election

“From an Arizonan’s opinion, I don’t see the rationale for going after John McCain,” Noble said. “Since Arizona is in play, those moderate Republican, pro-McCain votes are a key voting bloc.”

Scott Talan, an American University communications professor, said Trump doesn’t seem to be able to stop himself.

“We all have these things in life that bug us, that might annoy us or might upset us, including people,” Talan said. “But do we talk about them all the time? Do we talk about them when we’re supposed to be doing something else? Usually not.

“The president seems incapable of any normal sort of bodily or human control over what he says and thinks,” Talan said.

Ornstein, who called Trump’s comments “shocking and ridiculous,” sees a different motive: jealousy.

“The fact that McCain got that acclaim and he didn’t weighs on him,” he said.

– Cronkite News reporter Alyssa Klink contributed to this report.