Fact Check: Are Any of Donald Trump’s Attacks on John McCain True?
As the majority of Washington gathers for the memorial service of John McCain, one politician is sitting this one out. Donald Trump won’t deliver a eulogy for McCain. In fact, Trump won’t even attend the funeral. McCain himself made it clear before his death that Trump would not be welcome. Trump has repeatedly criticized McCain as part of a long-standing feud. And it doesn’t look like he plans to be more gracious anytime soon.
Vox notes that Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked John McCain for his voting record in the Senate. (And even for his time in the military.) Trump mocks anybody and everybody, though. So how meaningful are his repeated attacks on McCain? And could the president be correct in his criticisms of John McCain? Let’s fact-check some of the worst statements he’s made about McCain over the years.
1. ‘He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.’
- Verdict: False
Vox reports that in 2015, Donald Trump said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero “because he was captured.” Even though that logic insults prisoners of war across the nation, Trump has made the same argument for years. Time reports that as early as 1999, Trump said of McCain, “Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know.” McCain was captured and held for 5.5 years at a North Vietnamese prison. He endured severe torture, and he spent years in solitary confinement.
Fortunately, the military doesn’t seem to agree with Donald Trump that becoming a prisoner of war invalidates a service member’s courage or heroism. McCain received numerous military awards after his time in Vietnam, including a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, and two Legion of Merit medals.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump avoided military service in Vietnam by obtaining draft deferments. He got four educational deferments while in college. Then, he received a medical deferment, which he attributed to bone spurs in his heels. John McCain declined to criticize Trump for the deferments. He said instead, “I don’t consider him so much a draft dodger as I feel the system was so wrong that certain Americans could evade their responsibilities to serve the country.”
The New Yorker reports that McCain never considered himself a war hero. And Vox notes that he leaves behind a complicated legacy on the topic of torture. But rumors that McCain was a war criminal or committed treason are not true. Besides, Trump has never made the argument that McCain wasn’t a war hero because he was a war criminal.
2. ‘The very foul-mouthed Sen. John McCain begged for my support during his primary (I gave, he won), then dropped me over locker room remarks!’
- Verdict: Partially true
Time reports that John McCain backed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign until news of the Access Hollywood tape broke. On that tape, Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. So McCain withdrew his support. He explained that Trump’s actions “make it impossible to continue to offer even conditional support for his candidacy.”
Trump responded with a tweet criticizing McCain as foul-mouthed. (Trump’s supporters seem to have held onto that characterization. Recently, a fake news outlet even claimed that McCain’s last words consisted of a crude attack on the president.) We could find no evidence that John McCain “begged” for Trump’s support. However, Trump did endorse McCain in 2016. Yet on the topic of coarse language, Trump might have been right about McCain.
McCain made CNN’s list of foul-mouthed politicians thanks to his temper and occasional outbursts. And The New York Times noted that “Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and a Navy veteran, could be quite coarse” on the campaign trail. Of course, Donald Trump makes the list of foul-mouthed presidents. So his criticism of McCain sounds at least a little hypocritical on this count.
3. ‘John McCain’s done very little for the veterans. I’m very disappointed in John McCain.’
- Verdict: False
Donald Trump once said that John McCain had “done very little for the veterans.” On another occasion, Trump told The Washington Post that McCain “has not done a good job for the vets, and I’ve always felt that he should’ve done a much better job for the vets.” However, the Post’s fact checkers disagreed with Trump. The publication reports that McCain had proven “an advocate of veterans throughout his career.”
In 1991, Congress enacted the “McCain Bill” to require the secretary of defense to publicly share information on those who were unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. And recently, McCain co-sponsored or helped negotiate legislation to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs, improve access to health care, and prevent suicide among veterans.
The Post notes that over the years, some “veterans groups have criticized McCain for certain votes that affect various interests within the veteran community, or opposed some of his proposals. But even the organizations that have criticized parts of his voting record have recognized his overall contribution to veterans issues throughout his career.”
4. John McCain has ‘been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.’
- Verdict: False
The Washington Post reports that John McCain criticized the Trump administration’s deadly raid in Yemen. McCain said that he would “not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success,” and Trump lashed out.
In a series of tweets, the president said that “Sen. McCain should not be talking about the success or failure of a mission to the media. Only emboldens the enemy! He’s been losing so long he doesn’t know how to win anymore.” But that episode occurred in February 2017, mere months after McCain was re-elected to his Senate seat.
In November 2016, McCain secured a sixth term representing Arizona in Washington. AZ Central reported that McCain “easily” won the election even though he was “vulnerable in both his Republican primary and a general election in which Donald Trump topped the GOP ticket.”
5. John McCain was ‘disloyal to me.’
- Verdict: True, in a way
In 2015, Donald Trump criticized John McCain. Trump said, “I’m a loyalist. I’m a person that. . . if somebody is with me, I’m with that person. And John McCain was very disloyal to me.” John McCain certainly didn’t feel a personal loyalty to Donald Trump. And McCain did offer his endorsement of Trump, and then withdraw it. But more interesting than the question of McCain’s loyalty to Trump is the question of his loyalty to the Republican party.
McCain developed a reputation as a “maverick.” However, FiveThirtyEight reports that McCain proved “only slightly more likely than the average senator to vote against his party.” From 1987 to 2015, McCain voted with the Republican Party 87% of the time on party-line votes, the publication explains. And he served as a reliable conservative vote on major issues. He stood against abortion, remained hawkish on foreign affairs, and voted in favor of gun rights.
But FiveThirtyEight noted that “the Trump era saw a rebirth of McCain’s pugnaciousness.” Trump and McCain became “public foes.” Additionally, “McCain’s posture toward the president has remained defiant,” FiveThirtyEight explained. “McCain wouldn’t say whether he voted for Trump, and Cindy McCain was photographed wearing a white pants suit to cast her presidential vote, a visual allusion to the symbolic suffragette white outfit that Hillary Clinton wore to accept the Democratic nomination. ”
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