Among False Claims, Trump Attacked McCain For Failing Veterans

Mar 21, 2019
Originally published on March 22, 2019 2:30 pm

At a speech in Lima, Ohio, on Wednesday, President Trump went off script into a five minute, ad-libbed attack on the late Sen. John McCain, a celebrated Vietnam War veteran and a former prisoner of war. Lost amid the unusual verbal attack on a deceased war hero by a sitting president was an inaccurate claim about veterans' issues.

President Trump slammed McCain for failing to pass a bill to expand VA services — a bill which in fact was originally sponsored by Sen. McCain.

It's not the first time the president has picked a fight with John McCain. It was the first major fight, though, since John McCain died of brain cancer seven months ago. Trump called the dead senator ungrateful and claimed, falsely, to have approved McCain's funeral at the National Cathedral.

"I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted — which, as President, I had to approve. I don't care about this. I didn't get 'thank you.' That's okay. We sent him on the way. But I wasn't a fan of John McCain," Trump said in Ohio.

It is actually Congress that approved most of the funeral arrangements, though the White House did allow government transport of McCain's body.

At the Ohio speech, Trump also criticized McCain's support for wars in the Middle East, and the Arizona senator's decisive vote in 2017 against repealing Obamacare. And he also repeated a false claim about McCain's role in failing to pass a bill that would have expanded VA services.

"McCain didn't get the job done for our great vets and the VA, and they knew it," Trump said, "That's why, when I had my dispute with him, I had such incredible support from the vets and from the military. The vets were on my side because I got the job done. I got Choice and I got accountability. Accountability meaning, if somebody mistreats our vets — for 45 years they were trying."

The president did get strong support at the ballot box from the military community. And he did sign, last year, a major Veterans Affairs bill. But the law was not 45 years in the making, and is named the "John S. McCain III, Daniel K. Akaka, and Samuel R. Johnson VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks Act of 2018," in honor of McCain and two other veterans who served in Congress. This was an expansion of the original Veterans Choice law, to increase access to private care, which was co-sponsored by McCain five years ago, not 45 years ago.

I fear that some [veterans] may be asking themselves, if John McCain's service has come into question, does that mean that the president doesn't appreciate their service and some of the sacrifices that they've made for this country? - Lindsay Rodman, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Veterans respond

Veterans groups have been largely quiet about the president's most recent broadside against the one of the most prominent veterans to serve in congress.

"Our membership is varied," says Lindsay Rodman with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), "We have many members who are strong President Trump supporters and we have some who oppose him."

While she said IAVA wouldn't directly criticize the president, she added, "John McCain's service was so extraordinary and exemplary. Being a POW for as many years as he was in Vietnam is the type of trial and tribulation that very few of our veterans may have experienced and.....I fear that some of them may be asking themselves, if John McCain's service has come into question, does that mean that the president doesn't appreciate their service and some of the sacrifices that they've made for this country?"

The veterans group AMVETS said in a statement, "AMVETS is, and always will be, disheartened when an attempt is made to tarnish the legacy of an honorable veteran, notably a prisoner of war. Veterans who serve their country selflessly, honorably, and with pride deserve our utmost respect, regardless of bias or political affiliation."

Other major veterans organizations declined to comment. That was also true of many Republicans in congress — the most notable exception was Georgia's Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"It's deplorable what he said — it will be deplorable seven months from now, if he says it again, and I will continue to speak out," Isakson told Georgia Public Broadcasting, "We're all Americans. there aren't Democratic casualties and Republican casualties on the battle field there are American casualties and we should never reduce the service that people give to this country."

Many Democrats and left-leaning vets took to social media with critical memes and rants, perhaps hoping to bait the president into another round of tweets about the late senator, which even Trump's allies have said probably do not help him.

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said he would reintroduce a proposal to rename the Senate Russell Office Building after John McCain.

: 3/22/19

A previous version of this story said John McCain was a co-sponsor of a 2018 Veterans Affairs bill. In fact, while that bill was named in his honor, he did not co-sponsor it. He co-sponsored an earlier Veterans Choice law.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump went to Ohio yesterday - Lima, Ohio - to talk about rebuilding the military and bringing back jobs to the state. He also spent five minutes attacking the late Senator John McCain, a celebrated Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war. Among other things, the president slammed McCain for failing to pass a bill that would have expanded VA services, which the senator originally sponsored.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on reactions to the president's rhetoric.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's not the first time the president has picked a fight with John McCain. It was the first major fight, though, since John McCain died of brain cancer seven months ago. Trump called the dead senator ungrateful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as president, I had to approve. I don't care about this. I didn't get thank you. That's OK. We sent him on the way. But I wasn't a fan of John McCain.

LAWRENCE: It's actually Congress that approved most of the arrangements, though the White House did allow government transport of McCain's body. At his speech, Trump criticized McCain's support for wars in the Middle East and the Arizona senator's decisive vote against repealing Obamacare. And he also repeated a false claim about McCain's role in VA reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: McCain didn't get the job done for our great vets and the VA, and they knew it. That's why when I had my dispute with him, I had such incredible support from the vets and from the military. The vets were on my side because I got the job done. I got Choice, and I got accountability - accountability meaning somebody mistreats our vets for 45 years, they were trying...

LAWRENCE: The president was referring to a law passed last year. Its abbreviated name is the John McCain, Daniel Akaka and Samuel Johnson VA Mission Act, which has not been 45 years in the making and is named after John McCain. The original Veterans Choice law to increase access to private care, McCain co-sponsored that law five years ago, not 45 years ago. Veterans groups have been quiet about the president's most recent broadside.

LINDSAY RODMAN: Our membership is varied. We have many members who are strong President Trump supporters, and we have some members who oppose him.

LAWRENCE: Lindsay Rodman with Iraq And Afghanistan Veterans Of America said the organization isn't going to criticize the president. She did say...

RODMAN: John McCain's service was so extraordinary and exemplary, being a prisoner of war for as many years as he was in Vietnam is the type of trial and tribulation that very few of our veterans may have experienced. And I fear that some of them may be asking themselves, if John McCain's service has come into question, does that mean that the president doesn't appreciate their service and some of the sacrifices that they've made for this country?

LAWRENCE: The veterans group AMVETS said it was disheartened, but the other major vets organizations declined to comment. That was also true of many Republicans in Congress. The most notable exception was Georgia's Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He spoke with Georgia Public Broadcasting after the president's comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHNNY ISAKSON: It's deplorable what he said. It will be deplorable seven months from now if he says it again. And I will continue to speak out because there's one thing that we've got to do. We should never reduce the service that people give to this country, particularly in the offering of their own life.

LAWRENCE: Many Democrats and left-leaning vets took to social media with critical memes and rants, perhaps hoping to bait the president into another round of tweets about the late senator, which even Trump's allies have said probably do not help him. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.