Guess who’s becoming buddies with Donald Trump? Here’s a hint: If you were counting on Senator John McCain to lead the resistance, don’t hold your breath. Back in late February there was a whole lot of excitement because McCain gave a speech in Germany that – while never mentioning Trump’s name – was a pointed rebuke of the new President. That speech topped off a month in which McCain had made a series of fairly sharp criticisms of Trump.
The media and many Trump opponents lavished praise & gratitude on Senator McCain for having the “courage” to stand up to Trump. And there seemed to be a lot of hope among the Trump opposition that McCain could be the principled Republican who would lead the Party out of its dishonor and into some serious oversight of the President. This hope was particularly focused on the idea that McCain might force a serious investigation into the Russia questions.
At the time, McCain said this about Russia’s interfering in our election:
“The severity of this issue, the gravity of it, is so consequential because if you succeed in corrupting an election, then you’ve destroyed the foundation of democracy. So I view it with the utmost seriousness. I view it more seriously than a physical attack.”
Looking back at McCain’s comments from that month, it’s not surprising that there were many people who thought he might be the one to provide a serious check on the Trump administration.
However, at the time, I wrote this post Holding Out For a Hero warning basically: don’t count on it. The gist was that if McCain was really interested in holding Trump accountable we’d be seeing specific moves from him that we weren’t seeing at the time. Since then, not only haven’t we seen any of those actions to indicate an interest in holding Trump accountable, we haven’t even heard much more from McCain in the way of criticism. It’s mostly been crickets from him.*
And now we get this report from Buzzfeed: apparently Senator McCain and his wife, along with Senator Lindsey Graham all had dinner with Trump last Monday night. Asked by reporters about the dinner the next day, McCain said this:
“From a national security standpoint, I’m very pleased with the team he’s assembled. I’m glad he launched cruise missile strikes [in Syria] and I’m glad we have a radical departure from the failed last eight years.”
Buzzfeed notes that McCain has sounded thrilled with Trump’s foreign policy in recent weeks, with Trump’s aggressive stances toward Iran, North Korea and Syria. Indeed, CNN reports that the major turning point in the Trump/McCain relationship came as a result of the Syrian missile strikes. According to CNN, Trump and McCain’s relationship was already beginning to soften in the weeks prior to the Syria strikes, due to a chat the two had at a White House reception in March. This led Trump to call McCain before launching the missile strikes to confer with him. But it was Trump’s final decision to launch the strikes that really turned the tide for McCain:
“I think a seminal moment in his presidency was the cruise missile attacks in Syria, not just because of the damage that it did, but the signal that unlike the previous eight years, the United States of America will act,” McCain said Tuesday.
The Buzzfeed article also points out that because of long-standing relationships, McCain has great access to two of Trump’s top foreign policy advisers, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Of course, you’ll remember that McMaster wasn’t Trump’s original choice for the NSA role. That job was originally filled by Michael Flynn. After Flynn was fired, several other names were floated for replacements before McMaster eventually got the job, a choice which helped Trump begin to win McCain’s trust. For a politician like McCain, to whom national security issues are paramount almost to the point of being his exclusive interest, Trump winning him over on the foreign policy front is pivotal.
And here’s possibly the most significant detail in the Buzzfeed article: Trump is reportedly considering two McCain aides for positions at the State Department and the Pentagon. According to CNN, both of these names were on a list of recommendations given to Trump during the transition period, but he ignored them at the time. Now they are under serious consideration. If both or either of these aides gets those roles, it would give McCain even more influence over and access to foreign policy decisions.
The bottom line then is: McCain now has President Trump’s ear on foreign policy, the issue that is by far Senator McCain’s top priority. Trump is beginning to fulfill some of McCain’s wishlist items in this area, and he is earning McCain’s trust. And soon, McCain may have even more influence on Trump’s foreign policy decisions with the addition of his own longtime aides to the Trump administration. You could argue this is just McCain getting smart, following the old “keep your friends close, enemies closer” adage and that this means nothing about his willingness to act as a check on Trump. But as my previous post on McCain noted, his own actions (or lack thereof) with respect to Trump were already showing us what we needed to know. Now, it’s only becoming more clear: don’t expect him to rock the boat.
In the meantime, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 73% of those surveyed favor a non-partisan independent investigation of Russian interference in the election, compared to 16% who prefer Congress do it. And 54% say Congress should investigate whether there was contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government (even though most don’t believe such an investigation could be conducted impartially) vs. only 26% who say Congress should not investigate. If we who oppose Trump have hope for any true accountability – whether on Russia, on his taxes, on his use of the Presidency to promote his family businesses, or on anything else – it looks like we’re going to have to find ourselves another hero.
*This Sunday, on CNN’s State of the Union, when asked directly whether he thought Trump should release his taxes, given that he wants to pass an ambitious tax plan, McCain did say yes, Trump should release them. Actually, to be more specific, he said:
“I think I’ve said all along I thought every candidate for president should disclose their tax returns,” McCain responded.
He added, “I haven’t changed.”
That’s as extensive as he’s gotten with any criticism of Trump lately. But again, what’s key is that he’s not willing to do anything to back it up, such as refusing to support any Trump tax plan until Trump release his taxes.
On the same Sunday show, when asked whether he would support Trump’s tax plan, McCain wouldn’t give a clear answer either way, but he made comments that seemed to indicate support. Keep in mind, as CNN notes, McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 (out of substantive concerns), so the idea of him holding out support until Trump releases his taxes isn’t even asking him to stretch very far.
By the way, when I went back this weekend and re-read DC Deciphered’s earlier Holding Out For a Hero post, I was actually surprised to see how harsh McCain’s condemnations of Trump were, just 2 short months ago. Comparing that to the McCain we see today, it’s almost hard to believe it’s the same person.